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Justice League Dark

October 22, 2012 4 comments

Just over a year ago, DC Comics1 rebooted and relaunched their long list of comic book titles so they all began at Number 1 again. In addition to confusing bric-a-brac bargain hunters all over the world as they picked up a copy of the Superman number 1, DC also launched a range of new comic books, including Justice League Dark, which as silly names go, is up there with Green Lantern.

DC have a bunch of ‘supernatural’ heroes whom they’ve struggled to write about in the past. However, they announced that, during the reboot, they’d be moving some of the more obviously occult characters from their more grown-up range of comics back into their mainstream line, and this is why Justice League Dark features one of my favourite protagonists; the Liverpool-born, London-living, dirty-blonde bastard John Constantine2.

John Constantine cigarette pentagram

According to his creator, Alan Moore, Constatine’s look was inspired the musician Sting.

Unlike the usual sort of comic book hero, John isn’t a fireball flinging wizard; he’s cast more in the mould of a gritty occultist from an urban fantasy novel. Deceit and information are his weapons first and foremost, and his adventures tend to be very character focused dramas where the supernatural serves as a metaphor for more everyday horrors. So an odd choice for a leader of a what is essentially a version of The Avengers who fight vampires not aliens.

The weird thing is, it sort of works. Don’t get me wrong, the tales are rather silly and there’s nothing in Justice League Dark that hasn’t been done countless times in mainstream comic books. But there’s a charm to seeing a trench coat wearing cynic light up a cigarette whilst the world faces annihilation from this Vampire King or that ancient evil from beyond the stars. This is, perhaps, because we can believe wisecracking bravado from a bitter looking middle-aged man who’s still standing, despite clearly having been through hell.

It helps that the rest of the League are more brightly coloured; we get, for example Zatanna3, a top-hat wearing Las Vegas stage magician who can do almost anything with magic simply by focusing her will and saying what she wants doing backwards.

This has made her tricky to write for in the past, but because she’s in a book that focuses mostly on supernatural menaces, the writers get to limit her by making any threat worth her while resistant to her power. So she can deal with henchmen with a simple “skoom paz” spell, but can’t cut to the chase with a “dab gib tuo ekat” spell. This version of Zatanna is less light and more angry than previous incarnations, but balances out the team nicely.

We also get Deadman, a wise-cracking ghost in a silly costume, who’s been around for ages and is actually quite dull; character growth is limited if you’re a ghost, I suppose. The rest of the team changes, but these three seem to be our core team and they generate enough conflict and bickering between them to keep the book going.

I suspect the problem will be, that in the long run, Justice League Dark can only do a sanitised version of occult horror. These characters had been relegated to the more mature books for a reason, and actually making something scary without going for clichés like ancient evils and hordes of vampire requires tightly scripted, ongoing drama. They are hints that the book is attempting to go in this direction, but time has yet to tell if it can deliver the sort of chills needed to make this book stand out. I hope it does, but I suspect it will eventually yet another footnote in DC’s long list of abandoned ideas.


1: DC gave us Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash, and happen to be owned by Time Warner. DC’s premier superhero team is The Justice League, who have yet to have a good movie. Not to be confused with Marvel, who own Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Spider Man, who are owned by Disney these days. Marvel also gave us the The Avengers, and currently top dog, hero books wise.

2: John originally appeared in a 1985 issue of Swamp Thing, as part of a ‘mature minds’ range of comic books which eventually became known as the Vertigo line. The character eventually got his own book, Hellblazer and had some great writers during its long run, such as Warren Ellis and Mike Carey, and is currently in the hands of the under-rated Peter Milligan, all of which needs its own post. Hellblazer also inspired the movie Constantine, which also needs its own post and about half a bottle of whisky to write.

3: Zatanna, alas, doesn’t have her own book, as it keeps getting cancelled, and has been ‘reimagined’ many times. For my money, the best take on her so far has been Paul Dini’s run, who wrote her as stage magician first and a hero second. Though you could argue that Dini is at an unfair advantage as he’s married to professional illusionist, Misty Lee, who also looks good in a top-hat.

Categories: Comic Books

Person of Interest

October 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Once in a good long while, you get a crime drama series that does something different with the basic premise of ‘they fight crime’. Alongside the many variants of Law & Order and CSI we now have Person of Interest, a show that owes more to classic crime fighting action heroes such as The Shadow and Batman than it does to the usual formula of “the law always wins”.

The premise is very comic-book like. A reclusive billionaire genius has access to limited information on forthcoming crimes. He recruits a down-on-his-luck ex-CIA agent to help him to get more information, and together they fight crime. The agent, John Reese, is a one man army with his own problems. His motivations for doing the things he does are complex, but you always get the feeling that he’s always one step away from being a true villain without that being played up a clichéd, angst-driven way. Actor Jim Caviezel1 does a good line in gritty voiced, hard boiled bad-ass, and it’s hard not to like this hero, who’s known to the police as ‘that guy in the suit’2.

The Shadow Radio Cover

The Shadow is a grandaddy of crime dramas featuring people with unusual abilities, and a clear source of inspiration for Person of Interest.

He’s supported by Harold Finch3, a crippled genius who has access to all the surveillance systems ever, and an unusual way of predicting crimes. I’ll avoid spoiling exactly what that is, but this element lends a further air of the fantastic to the whole show; it’s entirely believable, and yet incredible at the same time, making a Person of Interest less of a cop show and more of a super-hero story where nobody has super powers or wears a cape. It might not surprise you to learn that the producer is Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote the relatively down-to-earth Batman movie The Dark Knight alongside his brother Christopher.

As the show progresses, the cast grows; we meet further heroes who again are regular people with an interest in keeping the streets clean and saving lives. Indeed, they’re introduced so subtly that it takes a while for us to realise that actually these characters are remarkable crime-fighters in their own right. Of course, they are recurring villains as well, and they are exactly what they need to be; real people, with real motivations doing bad things for reasons that they can justify and feel righteous for doing.

Person of Interest is now in its second season, and it keeps getting better and better as it goes on. I have high hopes for this show and I hope it inspires a renaissance in good solid story telling which features not indestructible action heroes, but remarkable people doing amazing things.


1: As badasses go, he’s an excellent choice. He’s also played incredibly powerful humans in the past; he was Jesus Christ in the The Passion of the Christ.
2: A regular suit, not a superhero costume. Though it may as well be.
3: Played by Michael Emerson, who’s made a career out of playing the quirky and off key. Previous roles include clowns and serial killers, which I’d argue is almost the same niche.

Categories: Comic Books, Reviews, TV

Guardians of the Galaxy

July 13, 2012 1 comment

With the success of The Avengers, it was perhaps inevitable that Marvel would attempt to make another super-hero team movie. Rather than playing it safe and going for another team that may be familiar to some, it’s possible that Marvel have gone for the full on weirdness that is 1 The Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians have been through two major iterations; the original 70’s/80’s team was delightful chunk of science fiction madness that had only the barest of connection with the mainstream Marvel universe. Set in a far future, the team roster featured super-strong soldiers from high gravity worlds, noble savages, crystalline beings (with hyper-intelligence) and the mandatory ‘man from the past’; Vance Astro. (Who was a cross between Captain America and Buck Rogers.). It was good, clean schlocky fun, but barely fitted with the rest of the Marvel range, being a lovely bit of space fantasy amid a range of gritty, street level hero books. The fanbase drifted away over time, and got itself cancelled in the mid-nineties alongside many other Marvel comic books that didn’t quite fit2.

Rocket Racoon; striking the balance between comic relief and diminutive badass. Somehow, it works, but that’s Marvel comics for you

Then, in 2008, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning came along and re-launched the Guardians of the Galaxy off the back of epic space opera series, Annihilation3. Abnett and Lanning upped the tone of series from space opera romance to cinematic science-fiction. Alien invasions, insidious memes and cosmic conspiracies are the focus of the reboot, and because it’s Abnett, we get some great character interactions. The line up of the team is utterly different; we have Rocket Racoon (an Earth mammal with a rocket launcher), Kroot (a talking, super-strong, regenerating tree-person), Quasar (Marvel’s more likeable version of the Green Lantern) and Starlord, (an experienced soldier who punches far above his weight, a sort of space Batman.) Just as weird as the original, but with the sort of punch modern audiences expect, and much more like The Avengers in Space than the original line-up. It’s a credit to Abnett and Lanning’s skill that these heroes are quite so charming. The new guys keep the romance of the old book whilst keeping it interesting and fun.

Is Guardians of The Galaxy going to do well as a movie? I have no idea. If the movie going audience is willing to buy into super heroes with a sci-fi twist, then probably, but it’s going to take one hell of a good script and a director who can juggle the weird with genuine character drama. I hope they pull it off though, it could be deeply awesome.


1: The Fantastic Four would be the obvious choice, especially as the first two attempts where tosh, mostly because it failed to sell the viewer on the idea of a super hero family. The FF movies aren’t that bad, it’s just that The Incredibles got there first, and did it better.
2: Another example would be The Defenders, who were a hodge podge of heroes you may have heard of; Doctor Strange, Namor, The Hulk and others, especially as it’s a handy way of introducing minor heroes. Sadly The Defenders are bit crap; it’s actually part of their ‘thing’; other super hero teams don’t take them seriously. Sadly, this also meant that neither did comic book buyers. Despite this, they’re fondly remembered.
3: I raved about that series here, but in summary; big space war, things went boom.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Movies

The Avengers – movie phenomena of the year

April 30, 2012 2 comments

Apparently, if I hadn’t gone to see the The Avengers 1 this weekend, the geek police would have turned up at my door and taken away my geek card and nerd privileges. Or something. It’s mostly pointless to pretend to review what is rapidly turning out to not only the box office smash of the year, but the younger generations equivalent of Star Wars. 2

Go see it, if not to prevent people from endlessly telling you to go and see it. If you’re a comic-book fan you’ll emit little squeals of nerdy delight, if you like big budget hero movies, you’ll love it. The rest of you will find the performances engaging, the wit sharp, the heroes pretty and the plot doing its best to not get in the way of the fun.

More interestingly, the The Avengers shows that the super-hero movie has finally reached the point where it can not only emulate the more intricate elements of the comic book format, it can excel it. Namely, the idea that you can set multiple stories in the same place. This isn’t particularly news, recurring characters have been a feature of films in the past, but this is the first time that the concept of a shared world, spread across multiple movies, has taken centre stage.

Avengers. Assembling. Never seen in Ikea.

Audiences have proven that they can ‘buy into’ a coherent world and setting, in this case the Marvel Universe. Remember, The Avengers is not just set in the same world that the Thor, Captain America and Iron Man movies were set in, it also (technically), exists in the same place that Ghost Rider and Blade exist. In theory, any of these characters could turn up in a movie with each other, and though it’s unlikely that Marvel will produce a romantic comedy featuring Spider Man’s Flash Thompson and Patty ‘Hellcat’ Walker3, it’s more possible than it was last year. Moreover, other franchises will now try the same trick. I expect to see Batman taking on Superman sometime soon. 4

The other thing it means is that comic-book geeks are now mainstream. But then they always were; The Avengers (and their corporate rivals, The Justice League) are modern versions of god-like pantheons, a repetition of the stories of heroism that we’ve been telling in different ways since we could tell stories. It’s just this time, when we tell, they are explosions.


1: Apparently it’s actually “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble”, presumably to distance it from the 1998 movie “The Avengers” that completely misunderstood the classic TV series of the same name. Personally, I’ve always found comparing the British Avengers (a super-spy TV show with incredibly weird moments) with the American Avengers (a super-hero comic book with incredibly weird moments) a nice study in the differences of cultures. Also, the British Avengers actually have stuff they want to avenge, but that’s a different rant.

2: My generation’s Star Wars was Empire Strikes Back. Pity today’s adolescents, their big Hollywood movie was The Phantom Menace.

3: Patsy Walker is an interesting example of the weird adaptability of the Marvel Universe. She began life as a character in ‘teen romance’ comics, and was eventually re-imagined as Hellcat, a kick ass crime-fighter in tight spandex. Imagine if you will, a version of Sleepless in Seattle where Meg Ryan suddenly becomes a deadly assassin, beats up Tom Hanks and then goes on to save the world from shape shifting alien monsters. I’d watch that movie.

4: Of course, a lot of TV is connected to other TV. At least according to the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis, which isn’t the name of a rock band, it’s an odd little idea that much of American TV is a child’s dream.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Movies Tags:

Runaways

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Marvel Comics has never been afraid to look for new ways to sell its tales of super powered hi-jinks, and quite often, these experiments yield interesting and enduring results.1 One rather nice example is Brian K Vaughan’s Runaways.

Original pitched at manga reading teenagers, the book found popularity amongst comic book fans of all ages; after all, a light sprinkling of teen angst can go a long way, especially if you add super powers.
The premise of Runaways is quite fun; a band of teenagers who have known each other through childhood stumble across their parents performing some sort of sinister and evil ritual. This being the Marvel Universe, the kids jump to the conclusion that their folks have to be some sort of super villain team. Convinced that their own lives are in mortal peril, they make a break for it and go on the run, uncovering amazing revelations about themselves and their families on the way.

Original, fun and refreshing, but still very Marvel.

Runaways is a rites-of-passage tale with a heavy focus on emotional journeys and personal revelation. The kids argue, make-up and inevitably bond, becoming not simply a team of heroes but a family2 . The Marvel Universe stands out when everyday problems (such as teenage homelessness) run smack-bang into impossible things (such as The Incredible Hulk).

The other nifty thing about Runaways is that all the super-powered elements are really, really cool. From intelligent uses of over-used super powers to novel gadgets and resources (including frog-shaped vehicles and pet dinosaurs), the book takes familiar comic book tropes and makes them young again.

The original series of Runaways is well worth your time, as is the Joss Whedon run, especially if you like a little soap-opera in your comic books.


1: Case it point, the Ultimate series of books began life as a way to explore old stories in new ways, with an eye to perhaps making Marvel Movies. So much so in fact, that the reimagined comic book version of Nick Fury looked like Samuel Jackson in the hope that they could convince him to play that character in the movies. (It worked.)

2: Family is a major theme of the Marvel Universe, from the Fantastic Four onwards.

Categories: Comic Books

Order of the Stick

February 10, 2012 1 comment

Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick has been in the nerd news recently due to the fact that it’s raised over $ 600,000 via Kickstarter1. For the uninitiated, The Order of the Stick is a webcomic that parodies the game of Dungeons and Dragons2. The core joke is that everyone speaks in game terms as if they where a real thing, because to them, they are. So when someone gets hurt, they talk about hit points, job interviews involve discussions about experience point totals, etc. This may seem like a barrier to non-gamers, but the nerd humour is just a side-line to the main plot.

Y’see, The Order of the Stick is deceptive piece of work. Take the artwork, for example. They’re stick men and women (hence the name). Simple art, yes? You would be forgiven for thinking so, but it’s nothing of the sort. These designs are incredibly simple but at the same time very well realised. Simple yet appealing character design is one of the major goals of any good artist. (Take Snoopy for example; Iconic, instantly recognisable and also very simple.) Each element is carefully thought out and very easy on the eye. And its genius is that most people have noticed how complex it is, and yet they enjoy it none the less.

Yes, you can be deep and clever at the same time

Simple, clever, funny, deep. Order of the Stick.

The same applies to the story. Amidst the gags about hit points and story clichés, Burlew has snuck in an epic-fantasy story that is not only a parallel to the likes of A Game of Thrones and The Lord of The Rings it also comments on the structure of fantasy story telling itself. The world is has detailed as any of its epic cousins, and just as grand in scale and design. These simple looking stick people grow and develop. We care when they are hurt and cheer when they succeed. The reader grows to care about them, just like you should when a story is told well. Yet even the concept of character development and growth is examined, parodied and made entertaining. The author never lectures, he simply shows the reader the mechanisms of storytelling whilst claiming to be a simple storyteller. Burlew is a magician who shows you exactly how the trick is done, and at the same time, you don’t notice yet still wonder how he does it.

The Order of the Stick is a stick-figure cartoon gag strip. It’s also a rich and complex work of art with a fundamental understanding of how we tell stories. Of course it’s based around roleplaying games, because many of our modern storytellers learn the craft by rolling dice to fight dragons. It may not have been the creator’s intention to deliver such a grand endeavour, but this is where he has brought us. This is why it is so beloved by its fans, and why it is doing so well.

You can check it out here, though I should warn you that it is epic in length, don’t try this in a single sitting.


1: Kickstarter’s brilliance is that it tells the user that they’re being philanthropic whilst at the same time being a great place to look for bargains. It lets everyone play at being an entrepreneur, even those of us with little money.
2: Specifically the Third and Third-and-a-half-editions of the game. This may seem as a minor technical point to some of you, but it was D&D’s third edition that changed the status of the game from ‘something that was once relevant in the eighties’ to part of the popular culture, mostly due to some very clever handling of the intellectual properties associated with the game.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Reviews

The adventure-game magazines of the Eighties

January 12, 2012 4 comments

Back in the mid-eighties, Fighting Fantasy1 books where everywhere; young geeks devoured them, and the bookshops where filled with a myriad of titles and their imitators. For the dedicated fan though, this wasn’t enough. The books painted a fantasy world, but the fans wanted more.

Cue Warlock, the short-lived Fighting Fantasy Magazine. For a fraction of the cost of one of the books, you could get a brief fix of your growing gaming habit. Better yet, you got to glimpse the development of these worlds. Warlock, featured maps, articles and monster profiles, and was pretty much a basic primer on how to build worlds. Many of these features would later be further developed into source books for Fighting Fantasy’s main setting. What made it stand out from the other fantasy gaming magazines of the era was the sense that things where being created before your eyes.

Smell the nostalgia. (Though it could just be the smell of old magazines.)

That and the mini-adventure stories. If you can have adventure books, then surely you can have adventure short-stories, and the idea that one can delve into a spot of gaming on a short bus trip has always appealed to me. I find that adventure books tend to be single sitting affairs, I open the book and try and finish it in one gulp. I may come back to it later to play other options, but if it’s any good then it should feel more like a thrilling fairground ride than watching a TV series.

The cool thing about short-form adventure games is that you can indulge and then leave them alone. They’re quick, fun and pretty much ideal for wasting time in those short moments. Even though the old Fighting Fantasy novels are now available as apps,2, I‘ve not seen short-story format adventures in the modern formats. Which is sad, as the appeal of the e-books is their portability. This is why I tend to read short stories on the train, after all. I’d much rather delve into a sword and sorcery game than play Angry Birds, especially when I’m in the mood for something a bit more interactive than a regular book, but I also want it to last the length of my journey and no longer.

Warlock, by the way, only lasted for 12 13 issues, but in that time developed two imitators. Proteus was filled with the contributions from fans, and some of these were very good. It was all about the adventure-game aspect, and lasted a little bit longer than Warlock. Also of note is the sadly very short-lived Dice Man. Edited by 2000AD legend Pat Mills, Dice Man was an adventure game anthology that let you play the characters form the 2000AD comic. The stories where told through comic panels, and this quirky little bit of comic book history was recently paid homage to in 2000AD’s Prog 2012 with a fun little Judge Dredd story.

I do wonder if this sort of thing will make a come-back. We have the technology, after all, and I recently discovered they’re as fun to write as they are to read. It would be nice, and I do get the feeling that they are due a glorious come-back. Time will tell.


1: Adventure Game books require the reader to make choices, rather than passively reading the story. All books draw you into a different world, but only Adventure Game books let you hit things once you’re in that world.
2: There is also a new generation of these games such as Jonathan Green’s Temple of The Spider God, exclusive to iPhone. Hopefully you’ll be able to read them on other things soon enough.

Categories: Books, Comic Books, Geek