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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Trades: ULTRAMAN (manga) Vol. 1 Review

And so I return to the tokusatsu well to speak of the Ultraman franchise yet again. This time we'll be striking while the iron is (relatively) hot by extolling the virtues of the ULTRAMAN manga, written by Eiichi Shimizu and drawn by Tomohiro Shimoguchi.

So yeah, we're branching out into manga here on The Trades. Aren't you excited? I know I am. 

First, let's get the synopsis out of the way:

A long, long time ago, in a forgotten era known as the 1990s, the world (i.e. Japan) was threatened by a series of attacks by both Earth-born kaiju and aliens from beyond the farthest star. The Science Patrol, the organization tasked with stopping these menaces from, as David DeMoss would put it, f@#$%ing the country up like Percocet, often were overwhelmed by their foes' awesome power. So, in times of crisis, Science Patrol Captain Shin Hayata would raise his Beta capsule to the sky and become the giant of light, the hero Ultraman!

But that was long ago….about twenty to thirty years ago, if the look of old Shin is to be believed. 

In that time, Shin has retired from the Science Patrol, gotten married, had a kid and found himself in the cushy position of defense minister. He also has no real memory as his time as Ultraman, since the giant of light defused with him at the end of the last episode of the original series. This leaves Hayata understandably confused when he and his young son Shinjiro start exhibiting super strength and the ability to survive falls from great heights. His old friend Ide (named Ito in the dubbed for some reason), now the Grand Poobah of the Science Patrol, explains everything to the poor guy and brings him in on a secret project....

....Which we cut away from to meet a now teenage Shinjiro going through the motions of high school life.  Like standing up for a young female peer being accosted by ruffians (his words, not mine) and accidentally breaking the head ruffian's ankle with his superhuman strength. He flees in terror and later that night he ends up confronted by a tiny (by Ultra franchise standards) and redesigned Bemular, here to visit the sins of the father on Shinjiro by way of murder. Luckily Shin shows up to save the day, looking only slightly ridiculous in the power suit meant to enhance the “Ultraman Factor” within him.

Though he fights valiantly, Belumar puts the now 50ish Shin on the ropes. This prompts Ide to reveal the actual secret project: a power suit designed to look like a cross between Ultraman and Iron Man. He proceeds to smack Shinjiro into the thing and send him out into battle. Will Shinjiro be able to fight against this powerful monster and save his father?!

(Spoiler: the answer is “yes” on both counts)

Now that that’s out o the way, let’s get to the review.

In doing this little series of comic book reviews I’ve found myself coming to an obvious conclusion: all superhero stories are, by their very nature, products of their time. Just look at what we’ve covered so far: Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men are clearly products of the early 2000s. 30 Days of Nightcould only really have looked the way it did and told the story it wanted to tell in a post-Blade and post-Matrix world. And Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man could only ever have been told in this New Tens, when having a black person taking the role of a white hero wouldn’t get you laughed out of a pitch meeting.

And so it is for ULTRAMAN Vol. 1. Both it and the original 1966 series are supposed to be set “in the future”, but it, like many superhero and sci-fi tales, have the fingerprints of the now smeared all over it. The original series was produced at a time when humanity had hope for the future, with the same dreams of global unity that birthed original series Star Trek. This ULTRAMAN (yes, it is spelled in all caps, I checked) manga, however, could only have been produced in the world of today, where the future looks just like now and exo suits are all the rage. Oh, and every superhero tale not based on an already pre-existing property (and some that are) have to either crib notes from Spider-Man or Batman.

Since our main hero is a sixteen year old kid, it seems we’ll be cribbing from Peter Parker’s playbook. Here in this first volume, Shinjiro has to be one of the blandest teenage heroes I’ve seen in a long time. We learn near nothing about him, save for his desire for a girlfriend and his minor angst at not controlling his powers during a confrontation. We learn nothing of his hobbies, his friends, or even his interests outside of “I really want to get laid” and “I must defeat this monster to save my father”. I mean, when you look at Parker, Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, Billy Batson, Tim Drake and the like, you have characters that were fully formed in their identities before page one of their adventures began. Compared to them, Shinjiro isn’t that much of a character.

His first tale itself is also decompressed like nothing I’ve ever seen. It takes a grand total of 228 pages for the first adventure to be over and done with.  That’s the kind of decompression that Brian Michael Bendis would look at and go “Damn, son! I thought I took my time…” It’s not like it packed to the brim with stuff that needs to be introduced for the audience to get accustomed to the world, either. We meet only three major characters, we see one confrontation with a monster and have our hero’s first battle…and that’s it. It just feels like their stretching out needlessly for time.

Wait… I said I’d be extolling the virtues of this bad boy, didn’t I?

It’s not like I can call this comic bad in any real sense. For all the hay I give Shinjiro, he’s probably one of the more believable teenagers I’ve seen in manga (though granted, my exposure to manga is limited.) You get the feeling that Shinjiro just hasn’t figured out his life yet and simply wants to be a normal kid and maybe get a girlfriend before he turns eighteen. There’s a scene in chapter two with Shinjiro talking with his father at the dinner table about his future that has to be one of the more normal versions of that conversation I’ve ever seen in fiction. For all his faults, he comes off as very recognizable kid. 

As for the rest of the cast introduced….well, we only really got to know Shin and Ide in volume one, so let’s talk about them. Shin Hayata is probably in the most interesting situation of anyone in the book, both the former hero passing down his legacy to his son and learning about what he had done as Ultraman. He obviously cares for his son and is worried that he’s damned him to a life of monster fighting. Again, it’s a believable take on a guy who’d been through such a life and honestly, I like him. Maybe even more here than in the original series, where he was your standard issue Silver Age comic good guy ( in the DC Comics sense).

But the volume’s MVP has to be Ide. He, and by extension the Science Patrol, really help this stand out from our standard “youth”-targeted reboot. Shimizu and Shimoguchi could have easily gone down the well tread road of “evil government deep science organization” or “amoral military branch” but instead basically portray them as straight up good guys. This is best exemplified in Ide himself: his genuinely friendly smile, his avuncular attitude towards Shinjiro and his comforting and relaxed tone when Shin starts remembering his time as Ultraman really sell the character and the organization. Hell, I can sum up what separates them from the pack of government super science organizations with one example: the fact they didn’t turn Shin into a guinea pig and made sure his superhero past remained secret so no one else would.

And now let us finally get to the art. It is, quite simply, spectacular; Shimoguchi really does some fine work on this book, giving it a style that’s modern but not to the detriment of the old. The designs are detailed and never feel like they’re busy or over-accessorized. Shinjiro’s Ultraman suit, yes, looks like Shimoguchi also watched the Iron Man movies, but it also feels like something a super science organization would whip up and design in homage to an old hero. And the action scenes (well, scene, I guess) have to be the most beautifully drawn I’ve ever freaking seen. Not only giving us all the good that’s there but making the characters feel mobile and alive on the printed page. I’m sure there’s probably better out there, but for now, Shimoguchi is on my list of current gen favorite comic artists.

Let me end on this: I’m not entirely sure how well this is gonna keep up. There’s always the possibility that the second volume will reveal heretofore unseen flaws or grottiness inherent in the story. But the fact remains: ULTRAMAN Vol. 1 is a good comic, buoyed by a likeable cast, and interesting premise and awesome art, held back from being great by only one or two major flaws. It’s an absolute joy to read (and a quick read too: about half an hour on my part, but you’ll probably get through it faster) and, whatever the future may hold, I’m glad I purchased this. I give this trade a 7 out of a possible 10.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Trades: The Ultimate X-Men Vol. 1: The Tomorrow People

"The 600 series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy."

Somewhere around the halfway point of Ultimate X-Men Vol. 1: The Tomorrow People, a question popped into my head:

Why does this comic exist?

And that, my friends, is probably the last thing you want anybody asking of your book. Sure, questions of continuity and characterization can kill a book’s quality for various reasons, but wondering why said comic even exists is probably the last thing you want your readers thinking about.

Getting back to that first question, I see no point in giving the X-Men an Ultimate treatment. It was thin enough gruel for Spider-Man, but the X-Men? As a concept, the merry mutants work on as an allegory for any persecuted peoples: African Americans, homosexuals, various forms of “them damned immigrants”, all the way down to that one lonely nerd in middle school getting the business from the local bullies for being different, there isn’t a person in on the planet who couldn’t relate (in either actuality or self deluding fantasy) to the premise of being belittled and feared for their difference form “normal” society. There is no real reason to give these guys any form of modern updating to pander to “the youth” because they, as labyrinthine as their back stories and published adventures are, already have a universal trait for kids from 1 to 92 to latch on to.

Never mind that, though. God knows should The Inquisitor come knocking on my door, my ass would be erased from existence. Let’s instead talk about how much this comic genuinely sucks.

The book starts out with my beloved United States reacting to an (off-screen) terrorist attack by the Brotherhood of Mutants the way you’d expect: paranoia and hatred masquerading as vigilance. The Bush administration has commissioned one Professor Bolivar Trask to build giant robots called Sentinels to hunt down anyone who dares have the mutant gene within them and stomp them into paste…. in major metropolitan areas… and in front of a slew of rubbernecking civilians. Instead of anyone calling this overkill or fearing this to be the first step towards the robot holocaust, these things are called a roaring success in stopping the mutant “menace” with a public declaration of war from the master of magnetism himself to help feed the beast known as Fear.

Given that these comics were published between February and July of 2001, you’d probably be prone to calling this comic “prophetic” and thinking that Mark Millar understands the character of the U.S.A. But thinking about it a little more reveals that not to be the case. Millar understands the U.S. in only the vague “a bunch of cheeseburger hoovering asshats who presume to know everything” sense. Man was born and raised in Scotland, after all. And while I won’t say that a foreigner can’t criticize my home country, but if years of watching Jon Stewart have taught me anything, it’s that you need an in depth knowledge what kind of bullshit the country is spouting in order to critique it properly. And sorry Mark, but ya don’t have that.

The whole book seems to function on only a shallow understanding of its franchise and its key elements. Almost every scene where the X-Men encounter prejudice and bigotry read like the most generic forms of prejudice and bigotry around; the kind of “go to hell, muties!” pronouncements that can been seen in any other given issue comics starring a mutant.  The plot is your standard boilerplate for a team origin as well: a bunch of dudes get brought together by a common cause, there’s tension in the ranks until a great looming threat brings them all together  to save the day and leave the door open for further adventures. The dialogue reads like everyone is talking at each other, delivering their lines more like they’re delivering testimonials instead of actual conversations. And as for the characters, well….

Alright, I’m going to be completely, 100% honest with you guys here: I would legitimately take an entire comic series with the firm of Harlan and Thompson from Ultimate Spider-Man. Yes, they were thin, one dimensional bullies from any given slasher film, but at least they were their own characters! Almost all of the teenage cast of Ultimate X-Men shares two traits: angst and snarky disaffection. There’s little to nothing to separate them from any other team of generic super kids you can find. This especially goes for Iceman, Colossus and Storm. They have a scene together early in issue three that, if not for height and gender, I wouldn’t be able to tell these guys apart! Cyclops comes off as a complete idiot when he decides, since Xavier’s plans nearly gets Beast killed, to joined up with the Brotherhood, even though the Brotherhood are bunch of smug mass murderers in the Ultimate universe! Beast and Jean Grey comes out as this volume’s MVPs by both being the least generic of the group, coming off as at least people I would be willing to read from month to month, and possibly even come go like.

Though, as much as I take the teenage cast o task, they’ve got nothing on the adults.

Professor X and Wolverine probably get off the easiest, coming off as themselves even if it through the incredibly cynical pen of Mark Millar. Almost all the background adults (the soldiers of Weapon X, every civilian character, the Bush White House circa 2001) are either complete jerks, shallow bigots and complete non-entities respectively. And Magneto has to have gotten it the worst out of everybody. I’ve never been a big fan of the guy, but even I have to admit that the guy does have a personality and a more complicated relationship with the X-Men than simple good guy/bad guy dichotomy. Here, though? Man’s a hypocritical, sadistic psychopath and possible cannibal, willing to kills scores of innocents to get his way and just as willing to cause the nuclear holocaust when it looks like a fight's going south. He’s not a villain you love to hate: he’s a villain that you hate because he’s such a complete cartoon!

Strike a pose!

The art for this sucker is merely okay. Adam and Andy Kubert (sons of comic legend Joe Kubert) don’t turn anything too terrible. There’s a scene where the X-men first gather where Colossus’ waist looks too tiny (an example you can see above), but all in all, there’s nothing really bad to report on the art front. Except for the cover of the trade; that thing looks ugly as sin. Wolverine looks less human and more like those rubber skinned T-600 models Kyle Reese mentioned in the first Terminator movie and the background looks like one of the CGI cityscapes from the 90’s Spider-Man cartoon as seen through an Adobe After Effects filter.

To finish this of, I’d like to make a comparison: Ultimate X-Men is the comic book equivalent to The Expendables franchise. It’s filled with guys you liked in the past going through the motions of a stock plot so stupid and contrived it’d be hilarious if it weren’t so damn dull. Plot point exist (Wolverine’s inevitable turn to the good guys, Scott’s moment of clarity, Beast’s nearly getting killed) not as natural story beats but as simply box checking for “What You Have To Include In An [insert type of story you want to tell here].” I realize that for some people, that’s enough. Good on them. It’s just not for me. I give this thing a 4 out of 10 and will probably cast it from my mind for other, better books.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

I Know What I Like: Psychedelic Ted Nugent

You know, I never knew Ted Nugent wasn't always a fringe Republican sideshow.
Gonna be honest here: I only picked this because it was on the end credits of Ash Vs. Evil Dead. Before that I'd never heard of either the Amboy Dukes or the song proper. But the hit three of my  buttons:

  • Being high energy
  • a kickass guitar riff
  • Good lyrical content
And that's all I;m gonna say to you guys. Listen to it for  yourself and enjoy.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Six Days Of Halloween: Remembrance

Happy Halloween, everybody! You and ours are celebrating the holiday in the manner which you enjoy. I know how I’ll be celebrating it: with alcohol, as God intended.

I won’t lie to you, dear reader: as I sit here at my laptop typing out this post, I find myself vexed. This entire six day hullabaloo has been a fly by the seat of your pants function as is, and I come here on the very last day of October wondering what in the name of hell to do for this most unholy of nights? Do I review a horror movie? Wax nostalgic about my favorite Halloween special?* Do I dig through my collection of comics and try to share something spooky with all of you? 

Having not a clue what to truly do for this special day, I’ve decided to fall back on something I haven’t done in awhile and wax nostalgic.

*It’s The Adventures of Pete and Pete episode “Halloweenie”, by the way.

I can’t say that Halloween is my absolute favorite holiday. Hell, it’d probably only placed third or fourth in my winter holiday list. But I can’t say I hate the holiday, either. I love the concept of putting on a costume, getting free candy to scarf down and having a little scare every now and then is an appealing concept to me, even today. Now, I haven’t trick or treated since I was, like, 11 or 12, but those day do still hold a special place in my heart.

To this day, there is one house I can say certifiably frightened me. It’s a house just half a block or so from my family’s home. They always went all out for All Hallow’s Eve. The place was a shrine to scary: tombstones, cobwebs, sound effects, it had it all. I was so scared of it that after one visit I didn’t go near it until I was probably a teenager.  

The best Halloween I’ve probably ever had was a few years back. I’d gone to a party at my sister’s friend Regina’s apartment. It was just a fun little shindig with about a dozen or so people at any one point. I was wearing my Mario costume and doing something slightly difficult or me: mingling. Oh sure, I knew a good half of the people there, but I always seem to freeze at functions with large amounts of people. But there, well, I can’t say I was the life of the party (that is my sister’s title, hands down) but I was a part of the party.

I’ve always thought of Halloween as a bit of harmless fun, a day to revel in kitschy ghoulishness and candy highs. Yeah, it can be scary too, but it’s never been about the scares. It’s simply about putting a costume for one day out the year and letting loose for a few hours. So have a happy as hell Halloween, all. See you guys when the sun rises.

Happy Happy Halloween, Silver Shamrock!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Six Days of Halloween: An October Long Ago

It's late and I can't think of anything for a full post, so for your viewing pleasure,here's me and my father circa 1996 or so as Robin and Lou Farrakhan Alfred.

To the BatMinivan!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Six Days Of Halloween: The Trades: 30 Days Of Night

I'm gonna catch soooo much $#!@ for this one...

So I was looking at my bookshelf for something to read for The Trades, when I came across a book I had never read before: 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. I was immediately intrigued by the prospect; this was a critically acclaimed, eminently successful and well loved story. Surely this will be the perfect fit for our six day countdown towards Halloween, right?

Well, let this go to show me to never believe the hype before you experience it for yourself.

First, the synopsis:

The town of Barrow is a quiet little place stuck in the middle of barren wastes of Alaska. As a month of perpetual night approaches the town, mysterious goings on are abound, punctuated by the destruction of everyone’s cell phones by an unknown party and the arrival of some long haired creep coming into the local diner and cause…very little on-screen trouble and get arrested by the town’s husband/wife law enforcement duo. His coming is simply the first vanguard of a full on invasion of creatures of the night; foul beasts that drain the life from all who come near them. It is an invasion your Aunt Beatrice with slides of her vacation to Bangor, Maine!

Don’t worry, I’m just kidding. It’s just vampires.

With the bloodsuckers feasting like starving piranha on the local, populace Sheriff Eben and Deputy Stella (the aforementioned husband/wife law enforcement duo), try their best to defend what little population there is left of Barrow and  try to figure out how the hell to kill these eternally damned monsters. Will they be able to survive to see another sunrise or are they all destined for a vampire’s lower intestine?

Alright, let’s get the positives out of the way first. Ben Templesmith’s art has to be the perfect fit for a horror series. The sketchy way he draws everything gives the story its own unique style and flavor. The muted color pallet helps the buckets of blood that splatter over entire areas of Barrow really pop. Everyone has a distinct face and the facial expressions do at least look human. Well, save for Eben’s face when he is injecting himself with vampire blood, which has to result in the scariest scene in the whole book.

Speaking of the good sheriff, I do like the interactions he and Stella have.  They feel like people that have known and loved each other for years. Through those interactions, I actually came to care about them and even slightly fear for them when horrifying crap comes their way. And their last scene at the end of the book was actually quite touching. So congrats, Steve Niles, you’ve made me care about these two people far more in three issues than I ever managed to for the Grimes’ in three seasons of The Walking Dead.

(Well, save for Carl. I never really could mount the hate for him that others could. But then again, I don’t have a pathological hatred of children.)

And that does it for the positives, people! Turn away now if you actually like 30 Days of Night, because from here on out I’m here to bury it.

When I started to read the book I was surprised at how much of it felt familiar. The evolved into outright disappointment when I realized this story was simply a zombie siege tale with the old lamebrains swapped out for a more sentient version of the undead. That doesn’t really seem to matter much, since the vampires here seem to act like particularly sadistic berserkers than the suave killers of old. A lot of the male vampires seem to be sporting a modern (for 2002) Count Orlok look, save for some dudes who look like generic toughs with fangs and one fat vampire in red shades that I lovingly refer to as Wilson Murdock.  None of the female vampires really matter; only two get lines and one is simply the old gag of a vicious killer being a little girl.

The characters might as well be non-existent. As much as I love Eben and Stella, I have to admit that their pretty one note in terms of characterization. But at least that gives them A NOTE! Most of the other residents of Barrow are nameless faces in a crowd, barely more than possible clay pigeons for their vampiric hunters. It got to the point where I was praying for the horror movie victims that were Flash Thompson and Kenny Harlan. At least that would give one of them a defining trait!

The vampires are no better for the most part, basically the standard laughing sadists you’d be familiar with if you ever heard of Carnage or The Joker. The only real ones that get any definition are the aforementioned Wilson Murdock (who at least comes off as slightly refined) and Vicente (whose main characteristic is becoming the head vampire in charge when he shows up at the end of part two). Even then, they’re barely anything to write home about.

Then there’s the story. I’ll admit that Niles does come up with something (slightly) unique for a vampire tale, but the whole damn thing just leaves me with massive questions like:

  1.    How the hell did the vampire think they were going to get away with eating an entire town?
  2.      If Vicente didn’t want this going down, why didn’t he just send Marlow an email exclaiming “Don’t do it, you f#@*&%# idiot! You’ll expose us to the world!”?
  3. Why didn’t Vicente just tell everybody to up and leave after he got their? It’s not like anyone’s really gonna believe vampires exist, so why not just tell everybody to go and prep for any form of retaliation?
  4. Was the subplot of those people in New Orleans just there so that a helicopter crash can explain the pipeline bursting and setting on fire?
  5. Why are there no real vampire hunters in this world?
  6. Why do sunlight and decapitation work as ways of killing vampires but none of the classic ways work? (Bonus question: when’s the last time you say a vampire story that didn’t use the “forget what you saw in the movies” cliché?)
  7. Why does every vampire (save for the little girl) feel the need to dress like they’re in The Matrix? Does becoming undead compel you to wear black all the time?
  8. Why do the vampires all function on the video game boss battle rule when Vicente is killed by a vampired-up Eben? You still outnumber these guys 15 to 1 by the looks of it suckheads, you can take Vamp Eben and the rest of the town.
But these questions all become minor nitpicks compared to my main complaint: this comic is far too short. I know that sounds like heresy in this age of decompression, but it’s true!  At three issues, the damn thing has no time for little things like getting to know the characters or explaining why the hell the invasion even got that far in the first place. We’re shown a montage of people being brutally murdered and told that children are being killed as well, but I don’t really care because none of these people are in fact people. They’re simply lambs to the slaughter.

Also, just as a brief aside, I’d read that the gore was supposed to be gruesome in reviews about this comic. I don’t know what they were on about, since I was never really affected that way by the blood spatters and decapitated heads spread all over the place. Again, I don’t know these characters, and we never really get to see either Eben or Stella reel at the horror of it all. I’m sorry, but if I want copious amounts of gore, there are plenty of other comics, movies and even TV shows that I can get that form. Many of which have characters I actually give a damn about without reservation.

In his analysis of Me and Joe Priest, noted pop culture scholar and Woburn native Andrew Otis Weiss opined on the tendency for larger comic book fandom to praise pedestrian material simply for thinking outside of the cape and spandex box. For me, 30 Days of Night is the definition of that kind of book. Sure, it has pretty art and two characters I actually like, but a story that raises way too many important questions and a cast of non-entities makes this thing sink for me. For that, I say bite me, 30 Days of Night, and give it a score of 5.0 out of a possible 10. If you want a good horror story set in a snow covered wasteland, watch John Carpenter’s The Thing.  You want a vampire story… well crap, we’re literally up to our eyeballs in those, so go out and find one you like. Only pick this thing up if you are a fan of Ben Templesmith. Otherwise, steer clear.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Six Days Of Halloween: The Horror of Dr. Seuss

There are certain things that stay with you, even if you only see them once in you lifetime. They'll fade into the back of your memory and you start to right it off. But then years later, with the glorious invention of the internet, some guy in glasses informs you those images were not in fact a fever dream you had when you were a kid. Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present said images.

I still have some trouble believing that this exists.