Monday, March 30, 2015

Marvel Comics: House of M

As I am making my way through the letter "H" during my comics PURGE, I ran across the House of M limited series from 2005.  I remember being moderately satisfied with it at the time, but ultimately saw it as just another piece of the flawed attempt to resuscitate the floundering House of Ideas. However, upon my second read this weekend, a decade later, my eyes were opened to what is actually a rather good story with some really strong, character defining moments.  Let's take a look:

Just after the turn of the century, Brian Michael Bendis, for all intents and purposes, acquired complete control of the Marvel Universe with the goal of bringing it back from the brink of disaster.  Heroes Reborn/Return had flopped, Spider-Man Chapter One was yet another disaster in the life of that franchise, and the rest of the Marvel U was just all over the place.  Bendis swept into the Marvel offices like a less skeevy Rasputin with a grand plan to save the comics giant from becoming another DC.  His plan centered around completely destabilizing the status quo of most of the signature characters and then filling in the gaps with extremely solid characterization and a lot of "realistic" dialogue.  Whether he was successful or not is really a matter for debate and, at least for me, hinges upon how much you loved the Marvel Universe before about 1995, but either way, Bendis undeniably changed the way Marvel Comics were written, thought about, and executed.

It was also during this time that the "Marvel Way" became synonymous with "write for trade."  And for good reason.  Bendis is the king of the big picture.  His strength is in writing the long story.  His single issue work is extremely hit and miss, with a lot of misses, but when it comes to writing a 6 or 9 part story (or longer in the case of his absolutely riveting run on Daredevil), he is a master.  House of M demonstrates this better than any other series of his I've read thus far.

The story is a bridge between two of Bendis' main events.  The preceding event, Avengers Disassembled, was a huge story that rocked the world's greatest heroes to their core, Marvel-killed* a few major players, and led to the creation of a very different kind of Avengers team.  This event was caused by the Scarlet Witch losing control of her powers after going quite mad.  (*Marvel-killed, of course, means that the character "dies" with the full intention of bringing them back as soon as sales dwindle or fan reaction is negative enough).  House of M was the next step in the plan.  After determining that the Scarlet Witch was the cause of the crisis, all of the major players in the Marvel Universe came together to decide what to do with her.  This sets the stage for issue #1 of the House of M limited series.

The story is a little slow to start with the first four issues slowly establishing the world we are about to play in.  First we see the world in the aftermath of Avengers Disassembled and the major players deciding the fate of Wanda Maximoff.  Then, in a literal flash the world is remade into one where mutants reign supreme.  Magneto is the monarch of a world in which humans are the minority.  One of the interesting side effects is that all of the heroes involved in the Avengers Disassembled event have been given their most cherished desires.  All would be just fine, except that one very important character remembers things the way they were (and are supposed to be).  That character is Wolverine, whose greatest desire was to have complete memory of his past.  Unfortunately, that level of recall also allowed him to remember that things used to be different.  Armed with this knowledge, Logan realizes it is up to him to set things right.  Along the way he encounters another mutant, a new character named Layla Miller, who can awaken the same realization in other people.  Together, they set out to convert the other key players and find a way to reverse the effect of the House of M.

All in all a good premise and a pretty good superhero yarn.  And then we get to issue #5.  Issue #5 firmly plants this story into the Marvel Archive as one of the classics.  In this issue we get the full impact of the consequences of the House of M because it is here that Logan must show Peter Parker that his ideal life is a lie and must come to an end.  Peter does not take it well.  Nor should he.  In the House of Magnus world he has it all.  He's married to Gwen Stacy, Uncle Ben is alive and well, he has a child, and he is famous for being Spider-Man.  He has everything he could ever want and it is all as real as anything could be.  There's no "too good to be true" aspect to his life, it's just his ideal life realized.  So, of course, Logan has to come and literally destroy all of that by having Layla awaken the reality inside him.

Bendis shines in his depiction of Peter's suffering as a result of the loss.  His grief and rage are real and powerful.  From this point forward, the character of Spider-Man should really never be the same.  (sadly, that becomes all too true, but not in a good way)  As a reader and life-long fan of Spider-Man, I can honestly say Peter's turmoil hits home hard.  It is painful to see the character put through these paces and presented with such profound anguish.  But because Bendis is smart and a true character writer, it is also a very satisfying read.

The story goes on as planned with the heroes banding together to right the wrong that created the House of Magnus alternate universe.  I'll not spoil some of the better twists of the story here. Very entertaining and all in all a good superhero plot, but the real strength of the writing is the handling of the characters and their various reactions to learning the truth.  Peter's reaction is the one that really resonates with me, but there is a lot of great character work being done in this series.  When the awakened heroes all get together to plan their attack, Cyclops is laying out the battle plan explaining that there will be three strike teams.  Then Jessica Drew interrupts with the apt question as to whether or not reverting things is even the right thing to do, suggesting that maybe this was meant to happen and is the right thing to have happen.  The heroes all go down that theoretical path with her for about a page and then Cyclops basically says, "are we all done with that?  Good.  There will be three teams..."  It is an incredible moment for that character as well; perhaps one of my favorite Cyclops moments of all time.

There is also a nice moment with Spider-Man and Logan, shortly after Spidey learns the truth, where he emotionally crosses a moral barrier he once held sacred.  I'll let the comic speak for itself here:

If you are a classic Spider-Man fan of any measure, that is a huge moment.  Bendis makes it very easy to get caught up in the moment with Peter.

And then of course, there is the iconic moment at the end of the series where the Scarlet Witch strikes again with her incredible power, this time in reverse, wiping out all mutants except for a tiny handful. This sets the stage for the next big Marvel event.  The Bendis era at Marvel was defined by yearly, mythos-shattering events that constantly rewrote the Marvel status quo.  The only real downfall in the House of M is the lack of a truly satisfying ending. The end of this series is really just a prologue to the next big event as the Marvel Universe deals with the sudden near-extinction of the mutant population and it feels like the story is more of a transition than a fully told tale.  If this story was allowed to have a more complete end, it would easily stand up next to classics like Days of Future Past or the Dark Phoenix Saga, but since the end feels more like a prologue, the denouement of the main plot is a little hollow.

But if you want a good look at how to tell character driven stories in a microcosm, you really cannot do much better than House of M issues #5-8.  Bendis gives a clinic in how to take established characters and put them through their paces.  I am extremely, pleasantly surprised to rediscover this series after nearly dismissing it a decade ago.  There is some tremendous work here if you are a fan of classic Marvel.

Friday, March 27, 2015

CrApps: Who Buys this Stuff?

So, recently for a fun time waster, I've been playing a very simple, very harmless game on my phone called Mr. Jump.  Mr. Jump is a platformer in the most basic sense.  You jump over things and run to the end of the level.  Like I said, it's simple and harmless.  And best of all, it never asks me for money.

To pay the bills, Mr. Jump will pop an advertisement up after every 4 or 5 lives lost, enticing you to play another game that, presumably, you might be interested in.  Except that's where the wheels come off.  Take a look at the ads that are showing up during Mr. Jump.

Give her a make-over?  The one on the left or the one on the right?  How about neither?  How do I make her less moody?  Is it good enough to just change her shirt?

Superstar Life?  That's the best you can do?  I suspect the made-over girl from the game above makes an appearance.  For a guy with hearts around his head, I'm not sure this guy wants to date anyone, especially not the thing on the left.

I like this one because it just blatantly rips off Pokemon.  I like to think this game is called Cease and Desist 2015.

Kill Shot?  First of all, you aren't even aiming at that guy on the other roof.  Are you shooting an invisible foe to his left?  I get that shooters are all the rage, but you'll probably want to do more than just have your hat in the ring.

Is the game called "Episode" or is this an episode of some other game, like maybe Superstar Life?  Furthermore, is this a game or a bad sitcom?

Look, I understand that shovelware is going to exist for EVERY gaming platform, even phones and tablets, but these redefine the genre.  What are the chances these are even fully programmed?  At least 3 of those games are by the same team and are likely the same game with extremely slight alterations.   And maybe the worst part, is that absolutely no effort is being put into marketing these games to me.  They look like total crap, they likely are total crap, but these "ads" are only reinforcing that fact.  At no time is any effort made to disguise that these "games" were probably made in about 30 minutes with some kind of automatic game generator software.  If you are going to ask me to even think about playing your game, you might want to make it in some way appealing.

So I have to ask, who plays these games?  Is there a target audience for these things?  Or are CrApp developers just throwing as many terrible "games" as they can produce at the wall and hoping at least one of them generates some kind of revenue?  It reminds me a lot of Spam emails.  What is the business plan behind these schemes?  Is it enough if just one person clicks on the link?  Will you make your money back if just one person buys the game or makes an in-app purchase?  Or are you just hoping to capitalize on the lazy, stupid consumer?  Because that seems like the most likely answer.

In any event, it's damn shame that a fun little, harmless game like Mr. Jump has to shill shovelware like this to pay the bills, but I guess if it keeps them from directly asking me for cash, we are all good.

Monday, March 9, 2015

NEW COMICS: Star Wars #1, Princess Leia #1

My comic book store owner knows I am a huge Star Wars fan.  He doesn't quite appreciate that I am a purist.  And by purist I mean canon = the Original Trilogy.  The first Timothy Zahn trilogy of novels and the Han Solo Trilogy are apocrypha, as are Dark Empire, Shadows of the Empire, and a few limited "Tales from..." compilations.  As with all apocrypha I could take or leave them, but generally they entertained me.

So when I said, "how are the new Star Wars comics?" and he said "they are really good, you need to read them," I'm not sure he really knew what he was suggesting.  My standards for Star Wars is ridiculously high.  BUT, I am not a closed-minded a-hole.  I am always open to more great stories in a universe that was GOD to me growing up.  However, I usually take that look with much caution.  I could recount my analysis of the recent Episode VII trailer, but that belongs in another entry.

I decided to throw at least most of that caution to the wind and pick up at two of the three Star Wars comics that were just recently released.  Maybe this time they got it right, or were at least close.  Maybe this time I would be able to revisit the magic that is Star Wars again and feel the same thrill I felt when I spent two days reading the aforementioned Zahn trilogy cover to cover instead of studying for my HIST-351 final.  Maybe...

So we start with Star Wars #1.  Seems like the good place to start.  This is the core book.  The story is set between New Hope and Empire Strikes Back (from here on in, it's going to get nerdy, so if you don't really get Star Wars, you will get lost, I make no apologies or attempts to carry you through this) and I'm told that all but a few select things from here and there have been thrown out and this is a fresh start (so goodbye to that apocrypha listed above).

I'll try to break the story down for you without totally ruining it because you may want to read this on your own.  Basically, our heroes (the core characters) are working to take the Empire down from the inside by destroying the rest of the Imperial infrastructure.  The Death Star was the big potato, but there are other notable targets, like the largest munitions factory (or in this case planet) in the Empire.  So our team resorts to extremely slight subterfuge to sneak in and blow up the weapons manufacturing base.  And they do a pretty good job of it, that is until it is time to leave.  As they are about to make their escape, the big scary guy himself shows up (what are the chances?), and effectively nullifies their chance to get smoothly off the planet.  While Luke, Han and Leia are doing the hard work, Chewbacca is playing point man for their escape, and Threepio is hiding out with the Falcon in a garbage dump.  When their cover is blown, Chewbacca gets compromised and Han and Co. attempt to blast their way out.  Meanwhile Threepio is meant to come pick them up in the Falcon, only the ship has been picked apart by scavengers and is not ready for take-off.  Our heroes are left in quite a pickle.  This sounds great, doesn't it?  It sounds like it is going to be exactly what we want it to be.  And yet...

I think my main problem is that the whole issue tries too hard.  I don't know that I am familiar with Jason Aaron's writing before this, nor the man himself, so I have no idea what he already knows about Star Wars, but I feel like this book over-tries to BE Star Wars to the point that there is no room for anything else, or worse, anything new.  And therein lies my real beef with this comic.  There is nothing new to see here.  Everything in this comic BLEEDS Star Wars in all its Star Warsiness.  Aaron doesn't show me anything I haven't seen before, sometimes with ridiculous results.  Let's start there:

The book opens with our heroes piloting a stolen spacecraft that is meant to hold a delegation from Tatooine coming to negotiate a trade deal with the Empire.  From Tatooine.  What are the chances?  There are a ba-zillion planets in the galaxy and the ship the Rebels steal is from a planet we have much, much, much familiarity with from the movies.  Why?  Does it serve the story?  No.  Up until now the ONLY significance of Tatooine is that it's where Luke and Ben came from.  Otherwise, it has been painted as a barren, miserable planet of absolutely no significance. The stolen ship could be from Klakdon VII and it would matter not to the story.  So why is it from Tatooine?  Because Star Wars.  Now we go from the convenient to the absurd.  What does this spaceship from Tatooine look like?  Keep in mind it's a SPACE SHIP.  Why, look there!  It looks just like a Sail Barge.  Just like the one Jabba the Hutt uses to tool around the desert on Tatooine.  Would it make sense for a SPACE SHIP to look like something built for traversing the desert?  Does everything on Tatooine have to look like this?  I seriously doubt it, but here it does.  Why?  Because Star Wars.

Would it have killed the story for this to be a ship from Planet X that looked like a cool new kind of space ship we've never seen before?  No.  It probably would have helped.  A lot.  But instead we are force fed super familiar stuff because I guess the writers or editors are afraid if we don't see Star Warsy stuff right out the gate, we'll think we bought a Care Bears comic instead.  It just misses the point.  (Go read the Zahn trilogy and see if he does that.  Here's a hint:  No, he does not)

The rest of the comic keeps falling into this trap.  Eschewing cool new Star Wars stuff for things you have seen before.  Why does Vader have to be the big bad Imperial that shows up to thwart them?  Why can't it be a new big bad Imperial threat?  Because Star Wars.  As the heroes are trying to escape they run into a giant storeroom full of, guess what, AT-ATs and decide to hijack one to make their escape.  Does it make sense that they might find AT-ATs in this facility?  Sure, but do they have to immediately assume its a great idea to hijack one in order to escape?  But why do they find AT-ATs?  Because Star Wars.  And why do they decide to steal one in order to escape?  Because wouldn't it be cool if Han Solo drove an AT-AT?  Also, Star Wars.  And finally, the comic ends with something you've never seen before:  Luke squares off against Vader in a lightsaber duel (or at least that what is set up by the panel below).  Not only am I pretty sure this screws up ESB more than a little bit, I'm also pretty sure as a Star Wars fan, I've already seen this twice in its two most impressive forms.  And yet, here I get to see it again. Why?  Does it serve the story?  No.  Because Star Wars.

And finally, the one area where Aaron decides to try something new feels completely out of place.  Threepio has always been a reactionary character.  He has always bumbled into a situation, reacted poorly to it, and then somehow bumbled out of it.  His one shining moment, the culmination of his story arc if you will, is in ROTJ in the Ewok village when he more or less saves the team and then recounts the story of their adventures. Otherwise, he's just kind of bumbling around without much to say about the world except an immediate reaction to what is going on (he's the chorus and our window in if you will).  Yet here, Aaron decides that Threepio is running commentary on the big picture, making inside jokes ("I do find it rather disconcerting that your vessel continues to be so easily mistaken for garbage" despite the fact that it won't be mistaken for garbage until ESB, so "continues" is an odd joke), and otherwise waxing philosophical about the Rebellion overall and the ability of the characters to work together.  It's just not in his character to do this.  Nor is it in his character to take a blaster and go to work on the scavengers dismantling the ship.  Although that is where Aaron seems to be taking us.  Can C-3PO even hold a blaster?  Ugh.  It just isn't working.  The only hope is that Threepio blunders it badly or someone comes and rescues him.

Honestly, the bare bones of this comic are absolutely great, but the execution of it is extremely troubled.  I feel like Jason Aaron was required to sit and watch all 3 movies and then just spat out what he saw onto the plot of this comic, hoping that it was Star Wars enough to catch the casual fan and not piss off the die-hards (or hell, maybe even titillate the die-hards, I can't tell.)  The end result is that I will not be back for issue two.  I've already seen the movies, I don't need see those same elements shaken up in a snow globe and regurgitated for me over a new plot.  No, thanks.
Honestly, there was more novel stuff in THIS Star Wars comic set in the same time period, but from a wildly different era

(I make little mention of Cassady's art because I've not been much of a fan since Astonishing X-men, and honestly, for me, he's a one-trick pony that is solid, but unimpressive.  He draws from movie stills to get the faces to look right and when he doesn't you can tell.  His action is solid, but flat.  The best I can say is that he isn't over stylized, which I truly hate, so I guess it could be a LOT worse)

Ok, so that was a little bumpy.  Let's take a look now, at Princess Leia #1 and hope that it's better.

And it is!  Much better.  I'm totally on board with this comic.  Unlike Star Wars #1, this comic doesn't vomit Star Wars all over the place and hope it's striking a nostalgia chord with me so that I feel catered to.  Instead, this comic tells a great Princess Leia solo story about what the hell she does with herself once the Death Star has been destroyed and she has to come to grips with the fact that her ENTIRE FREAKING PLANET has been obliterated.  Alderaanian Shakespeare? Gone.  Alderaanian Michelangelo's David?  Gone.  Alderaanian Marx Brothers?  Gone.  It's all gone.  Plus her entire family and friends and stuff.  So what the hell do you do with that?  There's your story.  And it's a good one.

Leia finds out that the Empire is hunting down any remaining Alderaanians with the intent to kill them.  Apparently you screw with the Empire and you get ultimate nullified.  Not cool.  So Leia decides to go preemptive and round up the remaining Aderaanians herself and get them to safety.  She enlists the aid of a conveniently placed, but totally acceptable, Alderaanian X-wing pilot to help her execute this plot.  This first issue tells the story of how this ball gets rolling, and honestly, it looks like its going to be a LOT of fun.

A lot of fun until the final page.  The last couple of panels really.  See I thought we were leaving all of the BAD Star Wars stuff behind and trying for a fresh start.  I thought we were safe.  And then Leia says:
Well, shit.

Since I read that, Aimee has talked me down, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, THIS Naboo won't be a giant flaming pile of crap loaded with Gungans and Ric Olies and dismal romances and all of the other stuff from The Movies That Shall Not Be Named.  So I am going to give Issue #2 a try.  Maybe she's right.  Maybe I shouldn't throw away 21 pages of really great stuff over one trivial detail.  Maybe, but it's a BIG risk.  Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me 4 times?  I'll set that damn comic on fire.

(Terry Dodson's art is a perfect match for the tone of this book as well.  A great storyteller and a pleasing style!)

So the net result is a disappointing Star Wars comic and a very promising Princess Leia comic with a troubling edge.  Honestly, it could have been worse, much much worse.  And as a side note, based on the "sneak previews" in the back of Star Wars #1, I think I am glad I didn't pick up Darth Vader #1 and here's why:
Why is Vader visiting Jabba the Hutt?  Because Star Wars.  Ugh.