Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Catching up on Comics with CGraig: We Are Robin #4

(2015, DC)

Woah man, this ish was a trip.  Bermejo's cover implies some sort of Batgirl of Burnside team-up, which totally happens but not like you'd expect (more in the inspirational way that Superman showed up in that issue of Hitman all those years ago if you follow me).  In the wake of the events of the past 3 issues, we get a spotlight on Riko to see more intimately how someone is coping with the Robin team's recent loss.  Riko really gets to stand out here, which gives her some needed distinguishing points.

Artist James Harvey steps in for a one-off and has delivered one of the craziest indie-looking issues of a mainstream comic in a good long while.  At times it seems Harvey is channeling Archie Comics, or Paul Pope, or Daniel Clowes, or Jim Rugg (this ish feels like the most Street Angel thing since Street Angel)... with zipotone grittying up the page and stark, flat, old-school four-colour style from Harvey and Alex Jaffe, it's just delicious.  The street art feel to Harvey's layouts (in some respects like Spider-Gwen's Robbi Rodriguez's layout) is very contemporary for the form but the visual style within the panels feels more retro.  Elements of collage and Ditko-esque pop-art dizziness all work together to create a blazingly unique visual story that accompanies an almost stereotypical tale.

Bermejo's brilliant incorporation of perennial high school English fodder Lord of the Flies into Riko's waking fever dream of a life is equally brilliantly hanled by Harvey.  Kids run amok.

And if I couldn't love this ish more, Harvey (I wonder if at Bermejo's direction) illustrates a graphitti scrawl of "They Reminiscence Over You" in honor of their fallen member Troy (with a circle around the 'R' - for 'Robin' dig?).  A Peye Rock and C.L. Smooth reference... ya got my love gentlemen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Forgotten but Not Gone - Lost Reviews from Thor's Comic Book Review Column, Star Wars Edition

Originally written on November 20, 2015.  A November 23rd column didn't happen, and this was forgotten for the December 1st

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Star Wars #12 (Marvel, $3.99)
Kanan #8 (Marvel, $3.99)
Star Wars: Vader Down #1 (Marvel, $4.99)
by Graig Kent


I was wondering when, in this ramp-up cycle to The Force Awakens, my threshold for all things Star Wars would start showing it’s shiny metal head. What burned me out of my long, seemingly undying love of Star Wars originally was not the mediocrity of the prequels, but rather the mass-market product push that followed The Phantom Menace, one that literally broke my bank and contributed to a half-decade-long personal recession. I saw the remaining movies in the theatre and was among the vocal few who weren’t so offended by them, but the love had certainly lapsed.

Strange magic is happening with The Force Awakens... to pull me back in; to get me to watch The Clone Wars and Rebels and the films avidly with my six-year-old; to get me interested in the comics for the first time since X-Wing: Rogue Squadron ended; to even get me buying toys again (but not for myself...mostly); and to get me to actively celebrate and anticipate and participate. But I could sense early on that in the year-long whirlwind fervor leading into Episode VII there would be too much Star Wars, and I was right.

I didn’t even try to keep up with everything. Stepping into a bookstore (what’s that?) recently and seeing their Star Wars table display filled with new-ish titles I was completely unfamiliar with totally exemplified this point. Proper novels, young-adult novels, teen novels, tween novellas, Wimpy Kid-style storybooks, younger reader books, Star Wars-as-Shakespeare, weird knitted Star Wars picture books, and on and on, a dizzying array of new-movie-capitalization that I was more repulsed by than attracted to. Beyond repeated viewings of the trailers, the hunt for the ever-elusive 3 ¼-inch Captain Phasma action figure, and the Marvel comics, I’ve been dutifully avoiding the mass-market product push that so brutally crushed me back in ‘99.

But even with such minimal investment, I’m feeling my born-again Star Wars fandom wane (though anticipation for Episode VII is still nauseatingly high) in the face of too much Star Wars. And yes, I’m just talking about the comics. [Star Wars #12 Cover] We’ve got three ongoing series of somewhat erratic schedules (Star Wars, Darth Vader, and Kanan), while there have been four mini-series of varying quality (Princess Leia, Lando, Shattered Empire, Chewbacca), and now a crossover mini-event, Vader Down, all in the span of 11 months. That’s over 50 comics at least $3.99 a pop. It’s a pretty harsh cut into anyone’s comics budget. And the fact is I’ve only enjoyed about fifty percent of the output so far.

For my $13 this week I got the latest issues of Star Wars, Kanan, and the aforementioned kickoff issue to the Vader Down crossover.

Twelve issues into Marvel’s flagship Star Wars series and I’m still largely underwhelmed by it. Jason Aaron has earned the right to be called a superstar writer in comics, and likewise his artistic companions -- first John Cassaday and now Stuart Immonen -- can lay claim to such a descriptor, and yet the end result for this most prominent series have felt less like Rebels or Clone Wars (two cartoon series which greatly expand the Star Wars universe through character and mythology) and more like Shadows of the Empire (a good intentioned late-’90’s multi-media effort to shoehorn in a not-so-epic adventure between Empire and Jedi). Rather than fitting comfortably between Episodes IV and V, Aaron’s scripts have the sensibility of a kid playing with his toys in a sandbox. There’s unfettered imagination at play, and a lot of fantasy role-playing, and while love and storytelling craft definitely play a part, there’s a questionable sense of authenticity. In a way, they feel not too distant from Marvel’s original Star Wars series, in that they don’t seem like a genuine bridge between films (as it’s so widely touted to be), but fun, out-of-continuity diversions.

This issue opens with bounty hunter Dengar sitting on top of a defeated Chewbacca, staring at Han Solo and Leia thinking he has the upper hand. The mere appearance of Dengar, in advance of Empire Strikes Back, can’t avoid seeming anachronistic. Meanwhile Luke is in Grakkus the Hutt’s gladiatorial arena facing down a giant cybernetic beastie, a plot point which play double duty in foreshadowing Luke’s encounter with Jabba and his equally flukey survival against the rancor. Again this seems anachronistic at best, redundant at worst.

Part of what makes Aaron’s scripts dissatisfying is the way he makes the Star Wars universe feel so small. We keep seeing things, places and people that are if not outright familiar then reminiscent of something else. Another part is that Aaron’s stories advance the characters in ways that seem out of step with the films (at this point Han should be saying to Luke, “That’s four you owe me kid”). It’s not that I’m unable to enjoy seeing Chewie fling a dude off a building, or to be impressed by any sign of fighting prowess from a Hutt, but when Artoo starts dispensing lightsabers to Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie like fruit pies in those old Hostess comic book ads, and said lightsabers are used somewhat adeptly by said characters against a troop of TIE Fighter pilots, I have to call bullshit. It seems like outside of that one time on Hoth, Han shouldn’t have held a lightsabre before, amiright?.
It’s got to be a tough job, expanding upon the experiences of the core crew from the original trilogy, since their on-screen presence and growth are so defined in the hardcore audience’s mind while their off screen growth largely seems inconsequential. Three story arcs in on this series, I’m not sold that Aaron is the right writer to lead these characters through their journeys, with story elements and action sequences feeling stunty (like the whole “Mrs. Solo” thing which was proven this issue to be a stunt). Stuart Immonen, meanwhile, has bettered Cassaday’s photo-reference-quality detailed panels, by adding a bit more pizzaz. Not only that, since coming on board with this arc, Immonen has bested every Star Wars comic artist before him, save maybe Al Williamson (but probably even then). He gets the characters, their physicality, yes even their likenesses seemingly innately (but I’m sure there’s a lot of reference craft happening). He builds alien environments and spaceships that are fresh but feel completely at home in the universe. A single panel crowd scene reveals a horde of recognizable alien life forms from across the universe in the best way, and man is he ever getting those lens flares in before The Force Awakens drops (I suppose we have colorist Justin Ponsor gorgeous coloring to thank).
It’s rough, because I’m not enjoying this Star Wars series for its story or characters, but the art is fantastic, and the spectacle is kind of great. I don’t feel like I can drop it outright, but I probably should.

Kanan is the only series in Marvel’s Star Wars offerings so far to work far outside of the original trilogy, here obviously piggybacking on the surprise success of Disney XD’s Star Wars Rebels. While it centers around one of the main characters of that show, it stays out of the in-show continuity and opts for telling the backstory of Kanan Jarrus, nee Padawan Caleb Dume, in nonlinear fashion.

The first story arc for this series took us back to the end of Caleb Dume’s Jedi training, when the call for Order 66 came in and Caleb went on the run. This second arc steps back even further to when Caleb first became a padawan, also nicely diving into the background of his troubled master, Deepa Billaba. There’s some nice character building going on here, but I think the time hopping structure it’s presented in poses problems with getting the audience truly invested

The art from Pepe Larraz is quite nice. Having the luxury of less photo referencing to do than most of the other artists on Star Wars gives him a bit more freedom and expressiveness for his characters, both facially and phsyically. With the series’ roots being in animation, Larraz’s work bridges the “real-world” Star Wars comics and the animated universe nicely.

Greg Wiseman (Gargoyles, Young Justice), who served as executive producer and writer on Rebels before departing for season two, was certainly the right man for this writing job. With a background in comics, as well as having an insider’s view into how Kanan as a character was built, he has effortlessly bridged the character to his and the Jedi past in these stories, while also bridging some of the gaps between Revenge of the Sith and Rebels. This story arc does feel more an extension of The Clone Wars than Rebels in all honesty, which isn’t innately a bad thing, but at the same time it never quite feels like Caleb/Kanan is interesting enough of a character to center an entire ongoing series around. Rebels is such an ensemble piece that it instead should be an anthology series cycling through the crew of the Ghost, rather than singling one particular member out.

Where Aaron and Immonen’s Star Wars seems like pieces to a whole different puzzle from the Star Wars we already know, Kanan at times feels like leftover pieces from a completed puzzle: you’re still trying to figure out how they fit, even though they’re seemingly superfluous.

Continuing that analogy, there’s Marvel’s Darth Vader series which feels like pieces of a familiar puzzle falling into place. It’s some of the absolute best Star Wars comic bookery in the history of Star Wars comic bookery. That series, written by Kieron Gillen, with art from Salvador Larocca, has been note-perfect from issue one, capturing all the menace and stature of Vader from the original trilogy, while bettering the prequels for capturing Anakin Skywalker underneath all that. Particularly, Gillen has managed to elucidate Vader and Palpatine’s relationship in a manner even the original trilogy never quite grappled, and continues to do so with incredible subtlety. Add on top of that the evil counterparts to Artoo and 3PO in Beetee and Triple-Zero and their creator, the fantastic Dr. Aphra, plus Gillen’s ability to get to the quick of Vader’s obsession with Luke, it’s all not just tonally perfect but brilliant fun.

So imagine my surprise to find that it’s not Gillen writing part 1 to Vader Down but Jason Aaron. Double my surprise to find all my complaints about Aaron’s Star Wars scripting dissipating when he puts Vader front-and-center and manages to deliver a read that doesn’t miss a step with the ongoing Darth Vader comic. Just as Darth Vader’s story of his fall and redemption is the centerpiece to the cinematic Star Wars saga to date, it’s his story that is also the lifeblood of Marvel’s ongoing Star Wars comic books.

In Vader Down, old Darth has finally secured a lead on the young, force-enabled pilot who blew up the Death Star, whom he’s already well aware is his son. Rather than follow the Imperial company line, Vader is desperate to connect with Luke on his own, off the books (though his plans for Luke are made obvious at the end of Empire Strikes Back, here he seem to just have an urge to meet this boy, his last connection to Padme), to the point that he’s heading relatively solo (only Dr. Aphra and the droids as backup) to a Rebel training planet. The book opens with Vader running headlong into dozens of X-Wings on a training mission that just got serious.

If you watched the extra-length second season premiere of Star Wars Rebels this summer, you saw just exactly what kind of ridiculously amazing flying Darth Vader was capable of, and Mike Deodato here captures that exact same (if not even more) intensity and dazzling spectacle. It’s somehow not even a fair fight despite the odds. Deodato also jumps in and out of cockpits during this sequence which, for the first time I can recall, captures fully the spirit of the Death Star trench run in comic book form. Deodato also give us a lingering double-page spread of the starscape post-battle, and it’s horrific… really hits home the “war” of Star Wars.

Of course it’s Luke who is the one to take Vader down, and does so with a bit of Aaron’s bombast that could seem out of sorts for Star Wars if it didn’t play so well as a set up for the next leg of the story. This finds Vader on the ground, alone, against the bulk of the Rebellion breathing down his neck. Despite the battalions surround him, you still can’t help but feel sorry for the good guys in this situation, as they’re all facing a tempest in a shiny black teapot..

When the Marvel Star Wars line was announced, I was dreading a Darth Vader-centric comic the most, fearing that further exploration of the character would demystify him even more, damaging his cool, like a Hayden Christensen force ghost haunting the whole proceedings. I never expected a Darth Vader-centric comic to be good, never mind one of the best reads on a comic stand each month. To see that it’s not just Gillen able to make magic for the character, but to see other writers also nailing it means the character and story have heretofore unthought of legs.

I couldn’t bring myself to even pick up the recent Chewbacca mini-series (and Chewie is my all-time favourite Star Wars character), such is my disappointment with so much of Marvel’s Star Wars books so far (and fatigue thereof), but as long as they’re offering up Darth Vader comics of this caliber, it’s all quite worth it.

Graig Kent is quite literally counting down the days to December 18. He’s thinking movie theatres should offer a weekly pass for $60-$75 good for unlimited screenings of The Force Awakens, Friday to Thursday. He’s taking the week off anyway, just in case.

Friday, January 8, 2016

5 + 5 Favourites of 2015

5 + 5 Favourites of 2015
by Graig Kent

One of the big conversations of 2015 was that of “peak TV”, whether we’ve reached the limit on the amount of quality television the industry and its audience can viably support.  I don’t see it as a question posed strictly for Television, though.  Since the early 2000’s and the rapid acceleration of digital technology for both creation and distribution of nearly all forms of entertainment (including but not limited to books, comics, music, movies, podcasts) we’ve long surpassed our individual capacity to consume at the same rate even a fraction of what is created in this world, never mind catching up on what has come before.  Every form of cultural engagement, from YouTube to Twitter to cable television to your local stand-up comedy venue to pro and amateur sports to phone apps to your local record store to Kickstarter to Amazon to this very website and beyond is competing if not strictly for your entertainment dollar, then for your even more precious entertainment time.  

In our very privileged world we have the ability to be endlessly entertained, to be distracted from reality ad nauseum, permitting ourselves to be absorbed in the thrill of competition or the immersion of digital landscapes or projection into fictional lands and universes on a whim.  We seek emotional manipulation through these entertainment vices as if it were utter need, like food or water.  I’m sure this speaks volumes about where we are as a people, but I’m not the thinker capable of teasing out a theory on this.  Instead, like the majority of us, I’m a consumer, a slave to the poison of distraction and entertainment, with comic books being my all time favourite vice.

As much as I consume -- and the unsorted stacks of floppies and trades beside my bed indicate I consume a lot -- time is finite, so to even deign to create a “best of” list would imply that I was able to taste even a fraction of the overall output of 2015, which I was not.  My weekly pulls typically consist of 10-15 books, each month seeing at least half a dozen new titles sampled, not to mention the preview copies we receive that I taste, and even still I’ve not even scratched the surface of what came out this past year.  

As such, rather than adopt such hubris as to tell you what was “best”, I will pare down a list of what I liked the most in 2015, divided into two unsorted groups of five: New and Continuing.

Top Five Favourite New Titles of 2015:

Archie (4 issues, Archie Comics) - I shouldn’t be surprised that Mark Waid and Fiona Staples could create a comic that I would absolutely adore, as both creators have a history of doing so.  The surprise was that they could reinvent Archie so drastically without taking anything away from what has made the character and his world so endearing for so many decades.  Waid has found a new way to tell genuinely funny, dramatic and heartfelt stories with these characters, which Staples has visually brought these characters crashing into the modern day.  

Darth Vader (14 issues, Marvel Comics) - Despite The Force Awakens arrival happening so close to the end of the year, Star Wars ruled the public consciousness in 2015 more so than anything else in entertainment. Disney-owned Marvel wisely capitalized on the anticipation for Disney-owned Star Wars Episode VII with a seemingly endless parade of product, most of which was middling.  But Darth Vader by Keron Gillen and Salvador Larocca stood out immediately.  What could have been muddled fan service instead is a unique look into the world of the Sith Lord, at once maintaining the ruthless and cool mystique established by the Original Trilogy and subtly revealing the Anakin Skywalker of the Prequels (and Clone Wars) underneath, mostly through interaction with other characters as they scheme and plot against him and he does the same.  Also, having sociopathic versions of Artoo and Threepio may sound corny but are the best new additions to Star Wars outside of main The Force Awakens crew.

The Private Eye (10 issues, http://panelsyndicate.com/) - a bit of a cheat as this started in late 2014 and ended in 2015 but I didn’t get around to reading it until this past year, plus the hardcover-collection-that-Robert-Kirkman-begged-to-do was released in December. It’s a hardboiled noir that incorporates all the tropes of the genre slapped into a futuristic setting following a privacy revolution, one where everyone hides their identities as much as possible all the time.  It’s a thoroughly unexpected setting, reactionary to the loss of identity security today, and overall tremendous fun, not to forget gorgeously illustrated by Marcos Martin.  Martin injects Vaughan’s sharp dialogue and thoughtful environments with rich details, kinetic energy.  and costume designs that are gorgeous, bordering on iconic.  It’s a tremendous read with great eye candy.

Sorcery Chapter 1 (1 volume, http://www.dannyzab.com/) - Literally coming out of nowhere is this independently published black and white 58-page story of magic, time travel and a teenager’s detachment after a tragedy. Danny Zabbal is new to the comics scene, debuting as artist on F1rst Hero: Fight For Your Life at Action Lab and creating his delightful online series of one-panel Ordinary Heroes, all with sizeable charm, but it’s Sorcery that hearkens the arrival of a great talent to the industry, not just his unflinchingly confident and clean lines, but creating a story that manages to create a natural world of achingly real emotion that doesn’t feel at odds with the lively and surreal fantasy elements that jut in from the edges.  For an early effort this is an incredibly assured introduction to a book that’s on the level with classic Vertigo.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (11 issues, Marvel) - Squirrel Girl is a joke character that somehow gained a lot of traction in the past decade or so.  Ever since Dan Slott added her to the roster of his Great Lakes Avengers mini-series years back (where she stole the book), she’s been a fan (and personal) favourite, with sincerity and irony in equal measure. The legend (and joke) of Squirrel Girl has grown that she cannot be defeated (having bested Dr. Doom in her inaugural outing as a hero) and the title of the series reflects that.  The genius here is in acknowledging that Doreen Green’ alter ego is a silly concept, and that she’s going to work best with someone writing her adventures in a humorous manner. Enter Ryan North who not only nails down Squirrel Girl as a wondrous hero with a huge heart and tremendous spirit, but gets that she’s not a joke.  The situations she’s in can be funny, she can be funny, and funny things can happen to her, but at the core Doreen is just loveable and that comes across with every footnote at the bottom of every page.  Erica Henderson brings her wonderful cartooning skills to the book to create a distinct vision of the Marvel Universe that makes everything feel bouncy and lively.  It’s rare for a book to make me laugh out loud as much as this consistently does, it’s an absolute delight.

Top Five Favourite Continuing Series of 2015:

Chew (8 issues, Image Comics) - since 2009, John Layman and Rob Guillory have tread a very fine line between comedy and absurdity from issue 1 of this series, and masterfully so.  They continually manage to hit incredibly affecting dramatic notes and shocking moments of violence while traipsing through a world filled with food-related superpowers, cyborgs, kung-fu roosters, and alien sky writing.  There’s never been a down moment in Chew, nary an off arc.  As it heads into what’s likely its final year (Layman has said it’s always been planned as a 60-issue run), I’m just bracing myself for fireworks and tearful goodbyes.

East of West (7 issues, Image Comics) - Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s alternate America saga continues to truck along methodically, each issue centering on just a fraction of the overall cast, always deepening our understanding of particular aspects of this insane, intense world while furthering the intrigue as the various fractions slowly reveal their intentions.  Dragotta’s crisp art, distinctive characters, and eye-pleasing alternate history designs never fail to wow, while the art design on the book (like most of Hickman’s Image works) make the book stand out, and provides a unique look to match the unique feel each and every issue.   

Lazarus (8 issues, Image Comics) - Few comics have been as focused on world building as Lazarus.  The backmatter of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s dystopian future has a RPG Sourcebook’s level of detail contributing timelines and intensive amounts of backstory to this world. Lazarus’ story is thrilling and its setting frightening, especially once one considers how such a civilization could possibly come to pass.  A little beyond speculative fiction, Lazarus is intricate, well-realized pulp sci-fi.  

Saga (8 issues, Image Comics) - It almost goes without saying the Saga is one of the best books of the year, because it’s been one of the best books since day one.  It’s a full blown space opera, catering to both the sci-fi and fantasy crowds.  It’s a soap opera, treading in high melodrama, without a hint of irony or corniness (that Fiona Staples can draw the ridiculous creatures she draws and imbue them with such life is one of her greatest gifts).  It’s often hilarious, even though it’s not a straight out comedy, and it will make you laugh.  It’s not afraid to get dirty, or sexy, but it treats its audience with respect.  Together with Staples, Brian K Vaughan manages to find the right balance of everything, delivering a comic book that feels close to perfect every time.

Velvet (4 issues, Image Comics) - 2015 saw a new James Bond movie, a new Mission Impossible movie, the Kingsmen and Spy all rake in much cash at the box office (and Man From U.N.C.L.E. have moderately less success, though it’s still a fun picture).  It also saw a new James Bond comic book on the stands for the first time in two decades.  Spies are still big business, but despite the low output this year, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s contribution to the world of espionage was still the best.  Every issue of Velvet feels practically like the arrival of a new Bond picture, even if it’s just the next stage of the currently ongoing arc.  Epting’s visualization of the 1970’s feels spot on and cinematic (gorgeously colored by Bettie Breitweiser), while every character feels like a real person, with Velvet herself feeling like someone you know personally.  Issue by issue it’s a treat, as a full run it’s going to be legendary.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Catching Up On Comics with CGraig vol.2

Batman #47 (2015, DC)
I want to be angry or mad or roll my eyes or something...this last page is ten kinds of whackadoo... but then I remember that a lot of what I come to comics for is the whackadoo.  When you put this level of illogical crazy into a book with such confidence as to not seem crazy at all, that's the glory of what the medium of comics affords. 

Scott Snyder killed off Batman, but not really, having an amnesiac Bruce Wayne reappear only a few months later (a real spit at those many many comics that spend so much effort making you believe a character is dead for a year or so only to make an event out of the character's return).  Batman died taking out the Joker, and thus the Joker died too, but here marks the Joker's return, sorta, all pink-skinned, grinning and not so insane.  We're so used to teasing and hyping of deaths and returns that something tame and a little goofy like this seem, well, off in some way.  But, actually, I like it.

We Are Robin #2-3 (2015, DC)
I was kind of intrigued by the idea of social networked vigilantes as presented in the We Are Robin 8-page preview that came out last summer, but I was paring back on titles so I gave it a tentative miss.  I told myseld that should the desire or opportunity present itself that I'd go back and start at the beginning (heaven forbid there be any gaps in my collections at this stage of my life and resources).  Well, with my wife picking up the "Robin War" event, I was reintroduced to Duke Thomas (first seen back in the Batman arc "Year Zero").  Duke very quickly made an impression in "Robin War" thus spurring on my desire to go back and pick up We Are Robin.
*(Duke also appears in Batman #47 above, apparently acutely aware Bruce Wayne was Batman and making pains to try and jog Bruce's memory, signaling real Batman's imminent return).

The first two issues were a little dry (putting me to sleep a couple of times), not really fulfilling the promise of the 8-page preview.  The highly stylized art from Jorge Corona (and Khary Randolph doing the epilogues) takes a bit of getting accustomed to and the oversized cast made it hard to latch onto anyone specific as a meaningful character other than Duke.  But the third issue finds the the team, reluctantly joined by Duke, trying to diffuse bombs in the Gotham subway systems (something they're ill-equipped to do) while a riot breaks out in the streets above.  Things get pretty intense for these Twitter vigilantes especially when robo-Batman shows up and tells them to go home, amateur hour is over.

The team has the support of a mysterious benefactor  called The Nest, who communicates with them through one-way text messaging.  There's a bit of mystery as to who this is, as to who wants these disenfranchised teens to risk their lives on the streets, and at first I thought it was Dick Grayson (given some of the things Dick has said to Duke in "Robin War", but turns out it's a wholly unexpected others character from the Batman mythos (nope, not Barbara either, though she apparently is in the next issue,  which I'm still hunting down in local shops). 

The third issue brings in the stakes as well as provides some meat to the "should they be doing this?" grill (a question to ask all around).  It took three issues but the setup finally lands, and it's an explosive punch.  I quite like it, certainly making the hunt for issue 4 a priority.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Catching Up On Comics with CGraig: Robin Son of Batman #7

(2015, DC)
Up until this Robin War I hadn't read any stories featuring Damian since his death.  I hated the little scamp at first, as we were supposed to, but through some great writing from Morrison, Tomasi and whomever wrote those issues of Teen Titans he was in (I forget at the moment), I wound up being quite fond of him.  His death was preordained, but it still stung.

I avoided the whole journey Bruce took to bring him back.  I'm not the biggest fan of resurrection stories (Resurrection Man excluded), but I am glad he's back as he brings something unique to the Bat-family.  All the Robins do for that matter.  It's what's making the "Robin War" mini event work. 
What's not working so well is the Court of Owls.  Introduced early in the New 52 Batman cycle by Snyder and Capullo, the Court has become somewhat omnipresent in Gotham ever since.  I guess that's the point, but for a secret organization that went undiscovered for 90 years (or whatever) they seem to be fairly well known and not at all concerned with sticking to the shadows. 

In this particular case, they're... honestly, I don't know what the eff they're doing.  Their plan seems to be acting as proxy for DC's plan, which is to reintroduce Nightwing to the DCU.  But who, and why?  I dunno.

This issue was a hot, unfocussed mess (certainly didn't feel like a Damien-focused entry), ending with an utterly nonsensical dramatic reveal and Scott McDaniel's art has seen better days.  This one seems like they took his rough breakdowns and just decided to ink and colour over them.  They feel unpolished and kind of lazy.  I was hoping for a little Nightwing throwback but it doesn't seem like creativity was even considered.  This one's perfunctory, at best.  I'm all set for the Robin War to wrap up any time now.

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BONUS KETCHUP:
Alias: Jessica Jones Vol. 4 (Marvel)
This volume tells Jess' origin (cheekily tied in with Spider-Man and Dearedevil and masturbating to Johnny Storm -all enjoyable but continuity problematic at best) and gets into her Purple Man story.  It's a decent enough tale but it has very little weight compared to how superbly it was done for the Netflix show.  The live action series took the basic concepts Bendis introduced and, in rare form for Hollywood, drastically improved upon them. Alias is greatly entertaining. It’s definitely worth reading and it for certain informs the show; but it's inferior to what the Netflix team managed to accomplish in almost every respect (the only aspect from the comic I wish they could do on the show is have Jessica date Scott Lang in season 2... but they've already established a relationship between Scott and Hope in the Ant-Man movie, so it isn't gonna happen).

Friday, January 1, 2016

Catching Up On Comics with CGraig vol.1

Welcome to Catching Up On Comics with CGraig (the "C" in "CGraig" should have a strikethrough in it but for some reason strikethrough isn't as common or accepted a font accentuator as bold or italics or underline), a regular feature in which I tackle the stacks of unread comics at my bedside (and other places throughout my house).
The comic book blog-o-cycle tends to focus largely on newness, on what's out this week or previews of next week or what's shipping in three months (and occasionally quirky, older stuff), but what about the recently released general stuff, the not-number-ones and random runs in the middle of a series, or even just stuff that sits around one's for years unread... like a near complete run of Firestorm (ahem)? Well, that's this columns bread and butter... and by bread I mean comics...  and by butter I mean comics.
 
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Today: Midnighter, Chew, Justice League United
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Midnighter #7 (2015, DC)
(Pg9) Did I miss an issue or has it been so long since I read issue 6 that I don't remember Prometheus showing up in it.  I thought last issue was a Grayson crossover?  I could dig through the piles and find out.... maybe later.

(Pg10-11) Goddamn, Aco!

(Pg12) Setting up a nice long-term rivalry between these computer-enhanced-brain fighters here. And nice job Orlando on getting into Midnighter's history without *really* getting into it.

(Pg13) Ok, really does feel like I'm misding something here. Was M dating Prometheus unknowingly... I'm confused.  How did I miss that.  Need to reread. Unless I didn't actually read it.

(Pg17) Apollo. Dang. I was hoping we wouldn't go back to the whole gay Batman/gay Superman love story. People break up, and they move on.  Move on M. I didn't want to see Apollo at all this series, but that was asking too much, I know.  I trust Orlando tho.

(Pg18) Deadshot! Is that "absurd architecture" a real building in Boston?  A quick Bing search (which somehow my Google Android phone has defaulted to) yeilds no image results (some other weird buildings though).  That's a neat design from Hugo Petrus if he made it up.

Post-issue Thoughts:
I'm thinking I definitely missed the previous issue, or at least didn't catch on that Midnighter's boyfriend turned out to be Prometheus. What a twist. Like M, I didn't see that one coming. Oh sorry, SPOILER ALERT. Love this title.  Didn't make my top 5 best new series list this year solely beacuse Aco's only on art duty every other issue it seems, and that's annoulying because he's so damn crafty.

---

Chew #52
I just read #53 on Wednesday and, unlike Midnighter above, I had no idea I missed an issue.  I was going through the "to read" pile and found this issue of Chew just sitting there.  A skim throug the first three pages revealed a flashback, dealing with Savoy's past, so if it's entirely just background it didn't have an immense impact on the precedings of isse 53.

(inside front cover) Oh yeah, Savoy bit off Tony's ear that one time.  That totally happened.

(pg2) aside - fantasy cast Savoy. John Goodman seems the obvious choice, no? A plump Sean Connery circa 1994 (The Rock era) perhaps.

(pg9) Maybe I have read this already. It all seems familiar. The Chief in his kangaroo legs making googy eyes with Colby... I've seen that before.

(pg12) Yup I've definitely read this because doesn't Tony find that guy and he's gone crazy from trying read the skywriting and then Tony bites the guy to find out what he learned and Savoy is there?

(pg16) Called it...in so much as I've read it already.

(pg18) I want to read that story where they go up against Boo-Berry, Count Chocula and Frankenberry, Ghostbusters-style.

(pg19) Called it... in so much as I've read it already.

(pg21) Isis came by while I was reading this issue, but unkike the cats in these photos she doesn't given a good goddamn about it.  She's never shown an interest.  She was all over my copies of Prez yesterday though.

(Pg23) anyone reading this Ringside book?

Post-issue Thoughts:
Gee, I wonder what happens next (sarcasm...because I've read the next issue already, see).

---

Justice League United #13-16
I've been disappointed with JLU from day one, back when Jeff Lemire was supposed to make it "Justice League Canada" but had no real plan for doing so.  When he left and Jeff Parker and Travel Foreman came on making this a weirdo Justice League book featuring whomever they wanted to cobble together for a mission in an almost anthology-like fashion, I was super keen on the idea but the execution proved problematic since the team dynamic would be hard to maintain if most of the team was cycling out every arc.  Plus, whatever that business was with Adam Strange that was the narrative thrust was kind of uninteresting. That first arc was entertaining enough but I can see why it didn't catch on.

Of this second arc, I've already read issue 13, and even possibly 14, but figured I should reread them in getting to the series' conclusion, just in case.
 ---
(JLU13, pg1) Sgt Rock! Oh yeah, this is a WWII story and WWII stories, like Italian Mafia stories, bore the pants off me.  Ey, I'm like Donald.Duck ova here!

(JLU13, pg4) Oh yeah, I like highly meloramatic, pulpy, fictional WWII stories like Inglorious Basterds which this seems to emulate a bit.

(JLU13, pg6-7) This thing. (pg8-9) I don't like this thing. I don't like that "the universe" is dictating prophecy, that a specific groupnis required for every mission because each person has a predestined role to play.  It takes away from the heroic aspects of resolve and triumph over aversity.

(JLU13, pg12) I really hate Steel's current armor.  It's fugly, makes him look like a poor-man's Cyborg and has none of tge cool factor of his original gear.  I miss the Destro helmet.

(JLU13, P14/15) The asides in this book are so 1980's/Marv Wolfman/Teen Titans..  "The Metal Men are someone else", "Call me 'Star'. I don't want to slow you down when you're saving my life."

(JLU13, Pg17) Steel pulling a Chewbacca, carrying a busted up Robotman on his back.

(JLU13, Pg21) I've not read much Enemy Ace...ever really.  And I don't recall the Who's Who entry.  Is he supposed to be a sympathetic Nazi?  "One of the good ones"? What is his deal?

(JLU13, PG22) Hah, love it when time travel stories loop back on themselves. Good payoff in this first issue.  Still not clear exactly what the mission is here, tho.
 ---
(JLU14, pg1) egad, we open with a soldier attempting to stand, having been gored through with Stargirl's staff, this after she was shot out of the sky by Enemy Ace.

(JLU14, pg2) Sorry, she was hit by Ace's plane, not shot, and he's a WWI German pilot, not a Nazi, so he can be a decent dude in that case, I guess.

(JLU14, pg3) I love Robotman, but since when does he have a stretchy arm?

(JLU14, pg6) And then Batgirl pulls an iPhone out of her utility belt and proceeds to show Sgt Rock and Co. the entirety of Groundhog Day.  Easy Company is driven mad by the concept of the film, the advanced technology projecting it, and the cuh-razy getup of the bat-girl.

(JLU14, pg7) oh, sorry, no... she throws a gas pellet and kicks them in the face, setting Vandal Savage free.

(JLU14, pg10) Oh, well aint that a lucky coinkidink... that soldier gored by Stargirl's spear was G.I. Zombie of all people... err... "people"

(JLU14, pg19) Robotman vs G.I. Robot.  Hah, yes please.

(JLU14, pg22) I'd be more excited if it was classic Kirby OMAC.
---
(JLU15, pg4-5) Convergence. So many players from so many different times. I think it's both great and terribly confusing (and also rather suspicious that its all these name-brand players... Enemy Ace, Easy Company, Creature Commandos, OMAC, G.I. Robot, Unknown Soldier...)

(JLU15, pg19-20) And so you just need to bayonet the Unknown Soldier (who's actually a "Breaker".. part of this overall JLU thrust I'm not really jibing with) and everyone goes back to their proper time.

(JLU16, pg1-2) I liked Paul Pelletier's work on issues 13-15 but Travel Foreman was supposed to be the series artist.  He's back here, although I don't know why he's uber-manga-ed up Alanna Strange in that last panel.  In fact she's looking ungodly skinny on both pages.

(JLU16, pg5) These townspeople mostly all look grotesquely disfigured, and yet nobody's commenting on it (and they're looking for weird).  I like Foreman's work quite a bit most of the time but sometimes it seems self-sabotaged by these weird caricatures.

(JLU16, pg7) Ah, turns out the weirdness in town is the House of Secrets.

(JLU16, pg12) I thought Cain was the violent one, but here's Abel lashing out (or is it a fake House of Secrets?)

(JLU16, pg15) a team up of Professor Zoom, Katana, the Riddler and Detective Chimp... sounds like a cool Super Team-Up Family story.

(JLU16, pg18-19) Aw, one of the things I liked about Lemire’s redo of Alanna was not having her be Sardath's daughter...oh well.

(JLU16, pg22) This was obviously Parker's endgame for if not his run on JLU, then this general arc, but its also evident this should have been a longer tale ( the origin of Adam Strange's problem, the effects of his confinement over time, and his rescue) as it all seems very accelerated here.

Post-issues Thoughts:
I like the random team up idea, and issue 16's origin tale helped clarify nicely exactly why it was happening and how it all started, but that really should have been in issue 11 or the 8-page preview that preceded it.  I think readers would have bought into it more with a clearer understanding of the stakes.  Honestly, Parker's brief run was fun in a wacky 70's kind of way, but I understand why it didn't quite catch on.  the $3.99 price point indicates one of DC's elite books right now (Superman, Batman, Justice League) but this was B-grade from the start.  Parker, and Lemire before him, embraced the B-grade status but DC I think was hoping for top shelf with the 'Justice League' name attached.  I also bet we're not seeing Equinox again for a few more years, if ever again.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Series Minded: The Saga of Crystar, The Crystal Warrior

nb. Title changes to just "Crystar, The Crystal Warrior" with issue8


Publisher: Marvel
Years: 1983 - 1985
# of Issues: 11
Writer(s): Jo Duffy (credited as Mary Jo Duffy in issue 1)
Artist(s): Brett Blevins (1-2), Ron Frenz and Danny Bulandi (3), Ricardo Villamonte (4-11) with Dave Simons (4-6, 8-9)

Background:

In 1982 the action figure market was still just ramping up.  Star Wars had revolutionized toys for boys with its copious amount of figures, accessories, vehicles and playsets, with G.I. Joe's relaunched poised to put even Star Wars' output to shame.  He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was also on the radar, merging fantasy with science fiction, capitalizing upon the success of Conan The Barbarian, and in comics it was evident there was a hunger for more than just superheroes, which dominated the shelves so resoundingly in the '70's.  It's perhaps too grandiose a statement to say that these factors all culminated in Crystar, The Crystal Warrior, afterall the character/series/toy line was hardly a smash success.

For me, Crystar lives in my memory primarily as an advertisement (as mentioned in 365 Comics #226) from 1983.  I knew there were comics but I had always assumed that it was Marvel's attempt to hop on board as licensee of another successful franchise (they, afterall, made successful runs out of ROM and Star Wars, and would later have great success with Transformers and Star Wars), and that when the toys failed so too did the book.

Imagine my surprise to learn within the front cover is the epic-sized first issue (deluxe paper stock, no less) of The Saga of Crystar, The Crystal Warrior, that the concepts, characters and designs originated at Marvel headquarters, out of then VP of publishing Mike Hobson's desire to cash in on the growing sword-and-sorcery trend, to create a product that could be licensed as toys.  Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, along with editors Ralph Macchio and Mark Gruenwald brainstormed the characters and the world of Crystar, and a young John Romita Jr was tasked with designing the toys (it's his art you see on those old ads).

Remco, the RC Cola of toy manufacturers, snagged the license for Crystar and forged ahead with producing the toy line while Marvel proceeded with laying out the saga in a bi-monthly comic starting February of 1983.  The translucent "crystal" warriors were certainly memorable, but the toy line did not last past the first wave of figures and asides.  I don't really know what caused the line to falter, but I would speculate that it failed without the weight of a television series behind it.  Equally awareness and distribution may also have been a factor, as often it's visibility that drives demand and if Crystar wasn't on many shelves (it appears K-Mart was the prominent retailer stocking the toy) or in many ads (as far as I can tell the line was only promoted for a month, maybe two in comics, though a trade ad indicated there would be television promotion as well, but I don't recall any commercials nor have I found any evidence on the internet of one).  Beyond that, while the figures were sturdy, and generally very nice looking, the vehicles (dragons, mainly) and Crystal Castle playset were fragile, which may have frustrated many kids (and parents).


The comic book lasted just under 2 years, and while reader reaction was very positive (as witnessed in the letters pages), and despite a stable creative team and attractive covers (primarily from Michael Golden) it just didn't last.  It's publication may have been tied to the success of the toys (though Marvel ran with ROM long after that toy's demise) or it just may have not been selling well generally.  Given the reader demand for it to go monthly, I suspect we would have seen a bit longer of a run out of the series than 11 issues, though I still doubt it would have seen the sunny side of 1986.

The Story:

Crystar and his brother Moltar are the twin princes of Crystalium, having taken leadership after their father's death during the recent war between Order and Chaos.  When the chaos wizard Zardeth threatens the newfound tranquility, the brothers are at odds with how to deal with it.  Their fighting leads to injuring their uncle and advisor Feldspar, and becomes so heated that Moltar stabs Crystar, apparently murdering him.  The Order wizard Ogeode saves Crystar by performing a ritual that transforms him into a man of crystal (a transformation his closest aides Koth, Stalax, Kalibar and Warbow also endure) while Moldar heeds the counsel of Zardeth and he and his followers are transformed into lava men.  The nation is divided and war looms once again.

Characters:

Crystar (Order) - the "hero" of the book actually turns out to be heroic more in reputation than actual deeds.  He's looked upon as a natural leader but he seems utterly self-conscious and ill-prepared for rule.  Of all the characters in the series, he's one of the least developed, and I was constantly waiting for him to step up and show what it means to be a hero.  He never comes across as particularly smart or self-motivated.  In the pages of the first issue, he's manipulated by his power-hungry fiancee Lavour, as well as both wizards Ogeode and Zardeth.  Throughout the run he's constantly kowtowing to his uncle, Feldspar, and looking to others to guide him.  I guess the "Saga" of the title was supposed to be his journey from exiled prince to king, but it rarely, if ever feels like his story.

Moltar (Chaos) - Crystar's brother, who sits frustrated in the shadows of his more skilled, more beloved twin.  He takes the counsel of Zardeth out of fear, rather than looking to what's right, though continuously his mind leads him to think of his people.  He's constantly questioning whether what he's doing is right, but with Lavour and Zardeth buzzing in his ear, he's continually pushed to making the wrong choice.  Disappointingly, Jo Duffy never commits to redeeming Moltar completely, nor making him a true hero, but the reader response in the lettercolumn ("Crystal Visions") continually points to Moltar being the unappreciated protagonist of the story, and that Crystar's a brat.

Feldspar ("neutral") - Lord Feldspar is the dwarf uncle of the brothers and their adviser, but when the brothers quarrel, and ultimately pick sides that may spark a war, he exiles them both and takes the throne until they can reconcile and rule together as their father intended.  To give the appearance of neutrality somehow Feldspar called upon both Zardeth and Ogeode to transform him into half-crystal on top, lava on the bottom.  As the series runs, he keeps insisting on his neutrality but is perennially on Crystar's ass, the undertones being that he's after keeping the throne for himself.

Ogeode (Order) - a powerful wizard of Order who helped turn the tide of the last Chaos War.  The fierce struggle had taken a great deal out of Ogeode and he's a bit of a scatterbrain.  He still understands the gravity of the events playing out but is too tired to help the brothers in the same capacity to which he aided their father.

Zardeth (Chaos) - an upstart wizard of Chaos, increasing in strength.  He senses the competitiveness in the brothers and craftily creates a rift, quickly slipping in and taking the weaker of the two under his wing.  He's a manipulator and opportunist and is genuinely threatening, except that he rarely engages in battle, more comfortable sending pawns out.

Lavour (Chaos) - she starts off as Crystar's fiancee, but it's readily apparent that she's more interested in power.  After Crystar is apparently murdered by Moltar, she quickly trades up, with no emotion shown at the demise of her prince, and well aware of Moltar's crush on her.  Though Zardeth barely pays her any mind beyond transforming her, she sees Zardeth's power and steers Moltar to him, acting like his accomplice.  She takes up the cause of Chaos and invests herself in seeing it succeed, if only so she can sit next to Moltar when he takes power.


Ambara (Order) - is perhaps the most useless character of the series, starting out as the handmaiden of Lavour and love interest of Warbow (but not reciprocating his affection).  When Lavour flees with Moltar, Ambara swoops in to the dying Crystar's side as a Florence Nightingale figure whom he falls in love with.  Beyond her constant doting, getting in Crystar's way when he needs to fight, and in need of rescue once or twice, she serves no function.

Warbow (Order) - the tall, strong, able warrior whose only weakness is his longing for Ambara.  He's loyal to a fault and an honest hero, always ready to sacrifice.  When he first encounters Zardeth, he shoots his eye out, and Zardeth takes his in kind.  When Ambara takes up with Crystar, he never lets his jealousy trump his loyalty.

Koth (Order) - rarely seen without his flute or baby dragon.  He is a fierce warrior but doesn't take much seriously ever since he lost the love of his life during the last war.  He's willing to follow Crystar anywhere and perform his duty but he seems to also be looking for an opportunity to die in battle.

Stalax (Order) - the young soldier who follows Crystar unwaveringly.  He gets injured in his crystalline form during the Crystal Warriors' first battle with the Lava Men, and it's an education for all involved in how to heal them.

Kalibar (Order) - the veteran soldier offers up the biggest sacrifice in following Crystar, both in their transformation and in exile from the Crystal Palace, which sees him leaving his family behind in the kingdom. 

Ika (Order) - Ogeode's daughter, who seems to be a bit of a latchkey kid and a kewpie doll, not well socialized, and keen to see the world at large.  She's daddy's little girl, both bending to his will and equally needling him to get what she wants.  With Stalax's crystal body seriously injured, the only way to help him heal is for Ogeode to understand his new form, so Ogeode forces Ika to take the transformation, which she doesn't even protest.  She's been trained in magic as well, but she's rarely shown as being capable with it, and usually defers to her father when a spell is required.  She was engaged to marry Bekk, but it seemed more an arranged marriage than something she was truly into.  All the single boys seem to want her, but she seems uninterested in doing anything but flirting.

Malachon (Chaos) - the leader of the Malachite Hills people, they are a race who honor warfare and bloodletting.  They hate the people of the lowlands and seek to take advantage of the fractured armies exiled from the city.  When they're defeated at the hands of the Crystal Band they accept Zardeth's offer of increased strength and allow themselves to be transformed into malachite bodies.  Their army joins (but in reality usurps) Moltar and the Magma Men.

Bekk (Order) - the fiancee of Ika, when Ogeode takes Crystar and his men beyond the ocean to the Kingdom of Order, Ika is hesitant, primarily because she does not want to see Bekk.  Bekk is a giant, in stature, and a giant ass in personality.  He immediately gets on her case about her transformation and accuses her of an affair with Crystar.  He seethes jealousy over Crystar, and seems to think he should possess Ika.  He ultimately asks Ogeode to transform him into crystal, which he thinks grants him equal status with Crystar, and he constantly challenges the prince's decisions and his orders.  But Bekk, though well trained and very skilled, has not seen war before and is stunned upon witnessing death in battle.  Ultimately Crystar puts him in his place and he accepts that he's perhaps not all he thought he was.

Shen (Order) - though it takes its time revealing it, Shen is Ogeode's wife.  She's a dwarf, but also a vicious warrior, armed to the teeth and craving battle.  It's never clear if she's Ika's mother or not, but she constantly cuts anyone down who calls her man old, stating "He's not old, he's Ogeode".


Issue-by-Issue:



#1 - Certainly starting the book off strong, and with confidence, with an extra-sized ("Feature Length") 46-page story on higher quality paper stock and under a memorable painted cover by Bob Larkin.  The story features a lot of great elements, though a product of 1980's comics, it's not the most smoothly told.  The conflict between brothers is a valid one, but escalates too quickly. The interpersonal drama of the story is frequently hokey, oversimplified, but the point comes across.  This first story ends somewhat abruptly with a 9-panel page establishing the status quo for the series.  The big battle sequence seems more in service of showcasing the toys than the story so it looks really stiff, artist Brett Blevins obviously struggling a bit with the character designs form John Romita Jr, and using them in a natural way.





#2 - this issue features the first of many, many, many arguments between Crystar and his uncle, Lord Feldspar.  This time, Crystar expresses his outrage when the Lord Regent changes the furniture in the throne room.  Cast out, Ambara, Crystar and his men take a walk through the slums of Galax and are attacked by Magma Men.  Ambara, once again in danger, is save by Ika, the red-headed sorceress in a gem encrusted bikini that would make Red Sonja bashful.  Ogeode forces Ika into taking the transformation into crystal, and it sounds like his questionable parenting is longstanding, "He! Wait a minute, you looney old phoney!  The last time you told me I'd be "quite safe" I ended up..!"  I don't think we ever find out what he had done... but my guess was he prematurely aged her and that she's really an 8-year old. Here, Koth hits on her, which feels creepy even if she is of age.  Koth also smokes a pipe.  Crystal meth?  Does look like a crack pipe.  After going through the transformation Ika comes out fully nude, which I guess answers my question about whether their genitalia makes the transformation as well (it doesn't).  It should also be noted that the crystal warriors have already all gone off-model.  Future series inker Dave Simons provides the cover.

#3 -  I found it odd that Marvel wanted to create a sword-and-sorcery epic, and then, in the third issue, scuttled the characters off to Earth and in the midst of Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum.  It didn't show much faith in their ability to attract readers based on the fantasy concept alone.  Crystar and Ika (who suddenly found clothes...or lingerie at least... since the end of last issue) are transported to Earth accidentally as an aftereffect of Ika's transformation, but somehow Ogeode and Zardeth are both able to penetrate the dimensional barrier with ease and fight within the time and relative dimension in space that is Strange's Sanctorum.  Despite feeling like it's way too early to cross over into the Marvel U proper the story is actually quite fun.  Duffy takes advantage of the different setting to relate how "our" world differs from Crystalium.  They don't have wood, apparently.  I like Strange and Ogeode talking shop, and Wong's reaction to the intruders was great.  Cover by Michael Golden, who covers the rest of the series






 #4 - It's very possible I had this comic as a kid.  None of the story is familiar, but I love this cover. This is iconic Crystar, if Crystar were an actual icon.  The next two issues have similarly-styled covers, and it's a shame that they didn't continue in this style for the rest of the run.  they're very striking with the full-color character front-and-center and "etched" characters and imagery in the background.  Ricardo Villamonte takes over penciling/artistic chores for the rest of the series and provides a consistency the story needs, as well a firm fantasy design sense.  I like his work overall, but my main beef with him is he doesn't draw the Crystal Men like they're made of crystal.  Compare them to Golden's cover, the sharp edges, the not quite true to life musculature.  In the books Villamonte's characters are drawn like regular people (well, "regular" beefy), just with a sparkling sheen.  His Magma Men are fantastic though.

This one's a weird one, as it features Kalibar telling his kids the story of Crystar and Moltar (a recap issue already?) though Duffy manages to tell a new tale in the midst of recapping, one in which Crystar and Moltar's people fight, but then have a conversation moderated by Feldspar.

#5 - Uh oh.  So to recap, issue 1 told us the origin of Crystar and Moltar, and issue 2 meant to establish the status quo.  Issue 3 sidetracked the struggle of Crystar for a crossover into the Marvel Universe and issue 4 already backtracked into retelling the origin, and now, in issue 5, it's "Assistant Editor's Month" where they tell "The story they said couldn't be done".  The first five pages of this issue are a fourth wall-breaking headscratcher in which Jo Duffy, Ricardo Villamonte, Bob Harras, and Crystar hang out for a discussion on what the story of this issue should be.  And then Crystar plays soccer.    In place of this issue's letter column is "The story behind 'the story they said couldn't be done'" in which Harras tells of how Duffy wanted to write a story that would make sense of some concept art showing the Crystal Palace and Magma Cavern are literally touching drawbridges.  This is that tale, originally kaiboshed by editor Ralph Macchio but perfect for the "out there" assistant editor's month.  It's a quaint little book, but I can only imagine, at this stage, how frustrating it would be for the readers of the series to keep having the story be interrupted for some side trip or flight of whimsy.  Were it a monthly book, and the issues between each of these were carrying the story along, it would probably be more palatable.

#6 - And here we go again. Once more we don't get an earnest Crystar story, but instead it's about injecting another Marvel superhero as guest start into the book.  Marvel really liked to incorporate their licensed properties (ROM, Micronauts, Godzilla etc) into the Marvel Universe, and doing so with a fantasy series would mean crossing dimensional barriers.  Logically, Nightcrawler does make sense, since he BAMFs from through an alternate dimension when going from one place to the other.  This may actually be the most enjoyable issue of the series, and it's terribly unfortunate that it takes all the focus away from the characters of the series.  Duffy does seem to enjoy writing Kurt Wagner, and it comes across.  Golden's cover perfectly exemplifies the fish-out-of-water scenario.  When he BAMFs into Crystalium, he's immediately suspected of being a chaos demon, chased and hunted by the Crystal Band and recruited by the Magma Men.  When Ika goes searching for him and is captured Kurt sees who the good guys and bad guys are and helps the heroes save Ika.  Ika helps Kurt return to earth, and upon reuiniting with his ex-enchantress girlfriend, Amanda, he comes bearing a gift.
"Crystalium!" Amanda exclaims.
"You've heard of it?" Kurt replies, taken aback.
"You bet I have.  I'd know those gems anywhere. That hussy, Ika wears these!"
What the eff?  How the heck does Daytripper know about Ika and Crystalium?  It gets weirder.

#7 - Most of the 80's boy's fantasy stories, the ones geared towards a younger audience at least, featured two sides, the good guys and the bad guys.  He-Man fought Skeletor, G.I. Joe fought Cobra, the Transformers fought the Decepticons, the Smurfs fought Gargamel, and so on, with only the very occasional third-party getting involved.  With Crystar, the set-up was Order vs. Chaos, Crystar vs. Moltar, but Jo Duffy never truly engaged with that simplified adversarial relationship.  Crystar and Moltar rarely met face to face or came to blows, and Feldspar's "neutrality" was a third-party antagonist on his own, if not a proactive one.  Enter Malachon and the people from the Malachite hills, who quickly usurp the brooding and pensive Moltar in Zardeth's favour, and rapidly become his go-to guys for causing havoc.

After Ogeode transforms a dragon into a boat to get them across the sea, (which is really cool...and apparently any sort of seaworthy vessel is a foreign concept on Crystalium) , we're introduced to the "The Land of the Great Council of Order" (let's call it "LOGCO" for short), Ogeode and Ika's homeland where we meet Shen and Bekk. The architecture, someone comments, "all looks man-made... there are no natural crystalline formations in sight"... "So orderly," another comments, an utterance that has never before been made, or ever again.  I like that in the world of Crystar, most exemplified with Shen and Bekk, there are giants and dwarfs but not "a people" of either, but just part of the culture.  I have to wonder if this was a design of the world from the start, a concept of Duffy's or all just Villamonte's design?  Or is that just a fantasy staple that I'm ill informed of?

This issue also features a pronunciation guide, but the only name I think required defining was Crystar himself.  Despite knowing how to say "crystal" with a "chris", I always called him "Cry-Star" (like a sad stellar body).  Like how Magneto is called "Mag-neat-oh" and not "Magnet-oh"... but anyway, I got it wrong.

#8 - So our heroes have made a long journey to LOGCO and now that they're there to appeal to the council to aide them in their battle with Moltar and Zardeth, but Crystar just can't meet with them today because he's mopey.  It's the anniversary of the death of a friend so, you know, heroic angst.  The flashback story which eats up the issue is a decent one, good even (it shows pre-crystal and lava Crystar and Moltar in battle), but it's frustrating knowing the short lifespan of this series and seeing the meandering pace of its main arc constantly interfere.  I'm sure the bi-monthly readership were also experiencing some frustration with this, seemingly only getting a continuation of the main story every other issue four months later.
This cover features an image later appropriated by musician Glen Danzig as his emblem.  Also, it's odd how much Ambara looks like DC's gem-themed fantasy character Amethyst on this cover...a style she never adopts in the series.

9 - Ogeode appeals to his people to help in the looming chaos war, and I guess Crystar got over his mopes because he's there too.  But it's Ogeode doing all the heavy lifting, not Crystar... again the hero undermined.
The counsel seem dismissive of the heroes' pleas, and it's Shen who comes to their defence, warring words with one of the councilmen, "For twenty years I have lived in this land, and been your champion in times of trouble, and been proud to teach and help you.  Now I am ashamed.  Now I see that you wear those gowns to conceal the fact that you are not true men at all.  The women of my tribe are more men than you..."  That's some great writing.
The ladies of LOGCO love the Crystal Band. "Handsome group aren't they?" one leers.  "It's the crystal.  So pretty," another ogles, and Bekk seethes with jealousy.
I have to say that Villamonte's art is wildly uneven in this book.  He seemed to have a particularly difficult time with Ika or he just hated drawing her.  She gets more and more simplified as the series goes on, her bust bigger, her hair more outrageous, her posture very prissy... she a crystal sorceress sexpot running around barefoot in a bikini...this series is not kind to her, or women in general.  Lavour is a a classic she-devil manipulator, Ambara is utterly useless, and Ika becomes a weepy mess.  Only Shen stays strong as a female character.  Disappointing for a book written by a woman that the female characters aren't all so strong.

10 - Speaking of terrible portrayals of Ika, seriously, just what the fuck is she doing on this cover... seriously! WHAT?  She looks like and albino blow-up sex doll as the star of Showgirls.
Anyway, this issue, Bekk gets transformed to a crystal warrior too, and the ladies of LOGCO love it.  "You know, Bekk looks even handsomer this way than he did before," on woman gossips with another.  "You're right.  I'll bet Ika is kicking herself for fighting with him..."
As I was saying about the women in this series... ugh.  As if someone's appearance makes up for them being an ass.  And boy howdy is Bekk an ass.  This issue culminates in a third battle with the Malachite people, and for the third time in a row, the small band of crystal men hold off the horde, and for the third time the assailants flee.  For a culture built on aggression and death, they run away an awful lot.
But seriously, what is Ika doing on that cover?



11 - The Special Double-Sized Last Issue, which starts with Crystar standing heroically in front of the Crystal Palace (which Villamonte has gone way off-model with, unless he got confused between the Magma Cavern and the Palace, as the latter dakes the dome shape of the former) and gives his big speech, all of three sentences long.  It's really the first time the titular hero of this book has looked particularly heroic, as he finally decides to take back his throne, uncle be damned, and end the threat of Zardeth and his brother.
I'm guessing that this storyline was planned without being the end of the series, because I don't know how else to explain the guest appearance of Alpha Flight.  It's a cute scene introducing them, as Ogeode digs into his pocket for his all-purpose prisma crystal (it's bigger on the inside) and his hand pops out of Shaman's bag. Sensing a rift in dimensions, Ogeode pulls the strangers through to Crystalium and the disoriented trio offer up their services when the final battle gets underway.  (It should be noted the trio includes Northstar and not Snowbird as on the cover). Strangely, Puck knows instantly he's in Crystalium, a head scratcher even bigger than Daytripper's familiarity with Ika back in issue 6...were the Council of Order used outside this series perhaps?

The Alpha Flight team is kind of/totally unnecessary to this story, and really undercut the big battle between the crystal warriors alongside the Galax military, against the Magma Men and Malachite people.  Moltar eventually revolts against Zardeth, Crystar kills Malachon and the Malachite people bow to his leadership.  Koth finds love with a magma woman wearing Princess Leia buns, Bekk gets killed and Warbow's there to pick up the pieces, Lavour has a sudden about-face and stands by Moltar instead of angling for power, and Crystar runs Zardeth through, though not before the wizard can strike out and return Moltar back to human form, thus ensuring the two lovers cannot be together:
"Lavour... I'm afraid it means I can't touch you anymore... not without risking my life..."
"But... I love you..."
"And I love you, too... but keep your distance, okay?"
"*Sigh*...Okay, darling.  Talk about curses!"
I know, right?
Then Puck calls Feldspar "short stuff", Kalibar reunites with his family, for some reason people think Ambara deserves to be queen, Shen tells Ogeode she's taking him to the bone zone, and then everyone cheers for King Crystar.  It's quite the half-assed attempt at wrapping up the series, to be honest.

Before and After:

Crystar's was actually the cover story for the very first issue of the long-running Marvel Age magazine.  I guess Marvel was pretty confident that they had a major new thing on their hands...  but since the series ended Crystar has only made one appearance in Marvel comics (outside of any comics that are just about comics of the 80's), and that was on the cover of Marvel Zombies 4, as Devon excitedly conveyed back in mid-2009.

I can't say as to why Crystar has never made a comeback or even a cameo in an industry that never lets anything die.  The comic book was uneven but fairly entertaining and generally enjoyable.  It really did deserve a longer, monthly run to develop its own identity, as Jo Duffy seemed to be building towards it.  Regardless, there's a clamor still for ROM's revival (though ROM did last 75 issues, the rights are mired in confusion) but things are generally silent on Crystar.  He can't have been completely forgotten...