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The Comix Corner

It's A Bird
Vertigo

Writer: Steven Seagle
Artist: Teddy Kristiansen
Hardcover, FC, 136 pages $24.95 US / $37.95 CAN

Despite his status as the most famous comic book hero of all time, Superman has never been easy for me to relate to. He's too powerful, too perfect, too…alien. It seems I'm not alone - even Superman's writers can't seem to come to terms with him. Such is the premise of It's A Bird, a new graphic novel memoir from Steven Seagle and DC's Vertigo. Partly an autobiography and partly a dissection of comics' most recognizable icon, the story follows Seagle's trials and tribulations as he struggles to understand the last son of Krypton, and himself in the process.

"Steve" has just been offered an assignment of a lifetime - the chance to write for an ongoing Superman title. Unfortunately, he can't get past the inherent absurdity of the character, and tries everything in his power to turn it down. How can he come up with believable stories about an unbelievable concept? Compounding the problem, the writer's personal life is in shambles. His father has gone missing, he's at odds with his girlfriend and, above all, a fatal genetic disease may be looming on his inherited horizon. It's not easy to write the adventures of an invulnerable superhero when your own mortality is made painfully self-evident.

The story unfolds like a one-man play as Seagle takes the reader on a guided tour of his life. His story is told from both first- and third-person perspectives; he interacts with the people and places around him, yet pauses to narrate directly to his audience. Picture an angst-ridden Ferris Bueller, and you'll get the idea. We are given an intimate look into his personal and professional life, his triumphs and his hardships, his loves and his fears - all with an underlying balance of sentiment and wit. It's an impressive piece of work, frequently resonating on an emotional level when it could have spiraled into an over-dramatic vanity project.

This isn't to say the book doesn't have its problems. First and foremost, "Steve's" selfish whining eventually gets tiresome. For every moment of genuine sympathy he earns, there's another where you'll want to bitchslap him. The man has been given an opportunity that others in his field only dream of, yet he spends most of the book sulking and treating his loved ones like garbage. It's like watching a spoiled little boy complain about the color of his new pony, and it doesn't help that he looks like a pretentious coffee shop intellectual. For the most part, his character comes across just as "snide and mean-spirited" as the modern superheroes he criticizes. Maybe he's aiming for irony there, but it makes him harder to root for, despite the horrific obstacles he faces.

The dialogue is also a little stiff at times, creating manufactured moments that take away from the more sincere and emotional elements. The relationship with his smart-alecky girlfriend is particularly annoying, right down to, "Who are you, and what have you done with my boyfriend?" If these two are like this in real life, then they deserve each other.

My only other complaint is that this is vaguely familiar territory. Can you think of a high-concept movie where the main character has writer's block, and ends up weaving himself into the story, using the assignment as inspiration? If you said Adaptation, you win a cookie. If you said Big Trouble in Little China, go sit in the corner.

Still, the pros outweigh the cons, and we're left with a touching, frightening, and ultimately hopeful story. Now let's get down to the good stuff. Outside of the primary story arc, the book really shines when it focuses on Superman himself. Within the story, Seagle breaks up his incessant moping with brilliant 2-3 page mini-comics, each breaking down a different aspect of The Man of Steel's strengths and weaknesses. One by one, Seagle exposes the flaws in the Superman mythos - his origin, his costume, his powers...everything. These things are poetry - absolutely amazing. Poignant, heartfelt, and extremely well thought-out, they do an excellent job of breaking up the story, giving readers something to look forward to around every turn. More importantly, they show us how important comic book characters can be, how they affect our lives and how they symbolize everything right and wrong within ourselves.

Teddy Kristiansen's artwork provides the ideal aesthetic for the story. Pencils are simple and abstract, with soft, washed-out watercolors giving the images depth and detail. The result sets a melancholy mood, complimentary to Seagle's brooding, and the result is really quite striking. Some panels belong on a museum wall, while others simply serve to move the story along. Furthermore, Kristiansen isn't afraid to experiment, altering his technique depending on the setting or mood of the story. But like Seagle, the Superman-themed "mini-comics" are his crowning achievement here. Each one is completely distinct in style and tone, and all are a pleasure to look at. They'll blow your friggin' mind. Man.

The real question is - should you pick this book up? In my opinion, the unique perspectives on Superman are worth the cover price alone. Beyond that, once you look past its flaws, It's A Bird is a touching blend of a writer's past, present and fiction, one I'll certainly read again. It's not the most uplifting book on the shelf, but if you're looking for a break from the standard superhero fare, give it a try.

Final Grade: A-

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Teen Titans: A Kid's Game
DC Comics

Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencils: Mike McKone & Tom Grummett
Inkers: Marlo Alquiza & Nelson
Colorist: Jeromy Cox
TP, 192 pages, $9.95 US / $15.25 CAN

It's not easy being a teenager, walking the line between childhood and responsibility. You've got decisions to make, expectations to live up to. You start to notice members of the opposite sex. And, of course, when you're fighting a super-villain mercenary, sometimes heat lasers shoot out of your eyes and you're not sure how to control them.

Originally introduced as the younger equivalent of the Justice League of America, the Teen Titans have been around in one form or another since the 1960's. Though names and faces may have changed over the years and re-launches, the core idea has remained the same. The Titans are the next generation of super heroes - teenaged sidekicks and protégés banding together, escaping their mentors' shadows to make their own place in the world. Though the concept began as a spin-off, the title has mimicked the adolescent heroes who comprise its roster, coming into its own as a major player in DC's line-up.

Recently, writer Geoff Johns assembled a new team of Teen Titans, and DC has collected the first seven issues of this top-selling series in Teen Titans: A Kid's Game. Yielding to pressure from their adult counterparts, Robin, Superboy, Impulse and Wonder Girl have arrived at Titans Tower in San Francisco, to continue their training under team veterans Cyborg, Starfire, Beast Boy and Raven. Through trial and error, initial resentment transforms gradually into respect, as each young hero learns what it means to be a Titan.

Johns has written this book perfectly, presenting a tale of adolescence as told through the eyes of superheroes. Each page is loaded with teenage frustration, as the Titans struggle to prove their worth not only to their role models, but also to themselves and each other. At first, inexperience and infighting lead to costly mistakes that threaten to tear the team apart. Eventually, however, the awkward dynamic gives way to true teamwork, as roles are defined and each character begins to mature in his or her own way. This book is a wonderfully believable read; no small feat, considering how precocious and contrived "superheroes-in-training" could have been. Johns gives us all the excitement and confusion of the first day of school, and he writes these characters as if he sits across from them in algebra class.

Of course, there's plenty of action to keep this trade paperback from being an after-school special. Perennial Titans adversary Deathstroke the Terminator (one of the worst names in comics) turns up to whoop some ass, seeking vengeance for the death of his son, a former team member. And he means business, immediately blasting Kid Flash in the kneecap at point blank range with a shotgun. The Titans may be kids, but Johns isn't pulling any punches, and some panels are surprisingly violent. There's also some trouble from the cult of Brother Blood, and even the parental figures from the Justice League show up for the familiar hero vs. hero "misunderstanding" slugfest. There's never a dull moment, and although this collected volume is more or less self-contained, there is plenty of foreshadowing beyond the Titans' origin, hinting at adventures yet to come.

The artwork is outstanding; as good as it can be without being flashy or exaggerated. Mike McKone and Tom Grummett provide pencils, Marlo Alquiza and Nelson are behind inks, and Jeromy Cox handles colors. I'm not sure how responsibilities were divided, but the result is outstanding. Every panel is highly detailed yet incredibly clean, with vivid, intense colors completing the package. These are perfect comic book visuals, and my compliments go out to the illustration team. The trade paperback also includes an introduction by Johns, as well as sketches and profiles for all major characters, making it an accessible jumping-on point for readers unfamiliar with the team's history.

Teen Titans is the kind of series that reminds me why I read comics in the first place - it's entertaining, exciting, and most of all, it features well-written characters that anyone can relate to. Though most of us might not know what it's like to fly, every one of us knows exactly what it feels like to be a kid.

Final Grade: A

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New X-Men #155
Marvel Comics

writer: Chuck Austen
author: Salvador Larroca & Danny Miki
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

It's time to face the music. After a solid 40 issue run, Grant Morrison's days of writing New X-Men are over. Now, I don't consider his work a flawless masterpiece, but there's no denying that Morrison pushed the title in a new direction, bringing fresh, innovative ideas to one of comics' most beloved franchises. With a combination of intense character development, shocking revelations and a complex storyline woven into his entire run, he did the seemingly impossible: he made us care about the X-Men again. His work on this title will be remembered for years to come. He left us a legacy.

And now, one issue later, Chuck Austen has come along and dropped a Cleveland Steamer all over it.

What the fuck was Marvel thinking? Austen has single-handedly destroyed Uncanny X-Men over the past few years. I've been following that title since issue #275, and I can safely say that his are the worst stories I have ever read. Throughout his excruciating run, Austen has given us a mutant werewolf society, miracle Angel blood, disintegration communion wafers and his crème de la crème, a mutant love story based on Romeo and Juliet. His stories are riddled with horrible clichés, awful dialogue and asinine plots. It's been just about unreadable, and he gets worse with every issue. The book is in critical condition right now, reviews are piss-poor, and fans are starting to get angry. So what does Marvel do? It gives Austen the other core X-title, effectively destroying my faith in the publisher and giving readers a big "fuck you" in the process.

Is this a cruel joke? Are we being punished? Has the editorial office stopped reading these books, or do they just not care? If anyone at Marvel is reading this, please enlighten me. How can you possibly follow one of the most acclaimed X-Men writers in years with one of the most reviled?

Austen's inaugural issue is absolutely awful. I realize Morrison left some sizeable shoes to fill, and even when I heard Austen would be taking over, I tried to remain optimistic. I hoped that maybe, just maybe Morrison had left behind a kind of floor plan, a guide for any writer who had the unenviable task of continuing where he left off. No such luck. This is textbook Austen garbage. In fact, if I hadn't looked at the cover, I'd swear this was just another issue of Uncanny X-Men.

Let's start at the beginning. One of Morrison's proudest accomplishments in New X-Men was the evolution of Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops. By taking Jean Grey out of the picture and ending a stale relationship, Morrison allowed Scott's character to grow, finding new love in the arms of Emma Frost. Cyclops was more interesting than he had been in years, and in the closing moments of issue #154, the future seemed ripe with possibility.

So of course, in the first few pages, Austen completely unravels this subplot, basically disregarding the previous 40 issues and pissing on everything Morrison constructed. Cyclops immediately gives Emma the cold shoulder - preferring to mourn the late Jean Grey - and the two go their separate ways. And adding insult to injury, Beast starts hinting at Jean's inevitable return, stating that, "after all, she is the Phoenix". With Austen drunk behind the wheel of this title, I wouldn't be surprised to see Jean brought back to life by issue #150.

Emma goes on to run into a mob of angry townspeople laying siege to a building full of mutants, lashing out against the havoc Magneto wrought in the Planet X storyline. Humans attacking mutants because they hate and fear them. Good one, Chuck. That angle hasn't been used enough times. This is just lazy, incompetent storytelling at its worst.

Meanwhile, Cyclops and Beast explore the ruins of the Xavier mansion, where they run into…an evil robot. I'll let that one sink in for a minute. An evil robot is hanging out in the X-Men's basement. Don't think about it too hard, or you'll rupture something. Instead, marvel at the uninspired fight scene that follows, because it gives us knee-slapping one-liners such as, "That's going to leave a mark". At this point, I tried to light this issue on fire, but I couldn't find any matches.

The X-franchise has always struggled with its revolving door of writers, which has led to continuity problems, forgotten loose threads and most importantly, inconsistent quality. But this reaches new levels of unacceptable and insulting contrivance. If Marvel has any hopes of salvaging this title's alienated fan base, they'll yank Austen after this two-issue storyline and replace him with a retarded monkey. Because 32 pages of smeared feces would be an improvement over this inexcusable disaster. This is a mockery of everything Grant Morrison strove to create, and if Austen's track record is any indication, this is going to be a dreadful year for New X-Men.

Final Grade: F

-------------------------------------


A Gregory Treasury, Volume 1
DC Comics

writer: Marc Hempel
author: Marc Hempel
BW, 176 pages, $9.95 US / $15.25 CAN

Gregory is an institutionalized little boy, all wrapped up in a straightjacket and left alone in a concrete cell. He has a big, oddly shaped head. He speaks only in gibberish, and he likes to eat bugs. I guess you might describe him as Calvin & Hobbes in a psychiatric ward. And though that might sound somewhat disturbing, I can assure you that Gregory is the most endearing little lunatic you'll ever meet.

Collecting creator Marc Hempel's first two Gregory books, A Gregory Treasury Vol. 1 is a series of short black and white adventures showcasing the titular character and his day-to-day existence in the asylum. Sometimes he looks out the window. Other times he's paid a visit by the inept hospital staff. But most of the time, Gregory likes to yell "BIM BIM BIM" or "ZUB" and run screaming in circles around the room. I wish I could do that. Beats work.

Gregory is often joined by his two rodent companions, who visit him through the drain in the floor. Herman Vermin is a big black rat with a misguided vocabulary and a tendency toward reincarnation, whose profound insights are matched only by his self-delusion. Wendell is a little white mouse who likes cheese. Together, these three unlikely friends each pass the time in their own way, be it making unintelligible noises, pondering the nature of reality or…eating more cheese.

Put simply, this is a sweet, bizarre, and often laugh-out-loud-funny book. Hempel has created a unique and memorable character, and his extremely clever series has the rough charm of a college comic strip. There is a captivating innocence to Gregory, who is happy as long as he's in his cozy, familiar cell. Through his eyes, the ordinary is transformed into wonder, even if it's beyond his comprehension. He's good-natured and unpredictable - and completely bat-shit insane. Basically, Gregory kicks ass. Plus, the book's pocket-sized format and short self-contained stories make it a great little bathroom book, so you can laugh while you poo.

The book slows down a little in its second half, which reprints Herman Vermin's Very Own Best-Selling & Critically Acclaimed Book With Gregory In It. Herman's existential soul-searching and energetic ramblings are entertaining in their own right, but they just can't compare to Gregory's happy oblivion, and he's conspicuously absent in the book's final pages.

In a complicated world - one where our standards of entertainment are swirling down the toilet - A Gregory Treasury is a breath of fresh spring air. Take a break from over-hyped movies, reality television and stale mainstream comics. This little book is a pleasure to read, and it's one that'll make you smile. As Gregory would say, "Kee kee kee. UH!"

Final Grade: A-

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Punisher #5
Marvel MAX

Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Lewis Larosa
FC, 32 pages w/ads $2.99 US / $4.25 CAN

Now we're getting somewhere. After three issues of slow build, Garth Ennis' newly re-launched Punisher has finally hit its stride. Frank Castle - everyone's favorite gun-toting criminal-killer - has been captured by the CIA, and an offer is on the table: Work with the government to hunt down terrorists, or die. Meanwhile, those quirky psychotic Mafia hit men are closing in, and they've got major beef. It all comes together in the final moments, and if the last page is any indication, we're in for one hell of a bloodbath in issue #5.

Aside from the overdue plot momentum, this title earns its MAX imprint with this issue. This is some solid Ennis. We've got unsettling and over the top violence, filthy dialogue, political commentary - the whole nine. It's nowhere near the Ennis masterpiece that is Preacher, but it echoes some of that book's energy. The same goes for Lewis Larosa's artwork, although his pencils are nowhere as clean as Steve Dillon's.

After this issue, it's safe to say that I'll hang around for a while. However, I remain skeptical about the future of this title. There's a reason The Punisher has been re-launched seven times (not counting War Zone, War Journal, Super Bullet Explosion Party or any of the other countless spin-offs). Frank Castle is a one-note character with no personality, no supporting cast, and no motive beyond revenge. If history has taught us a lesson, it's that this formula is just not enough to sustain an ongoing series. I'll stick with it until the first arc hits its brutal conclusion, but when that's over, I doubt I'll be the only reader who drops this book like a newborn baby.

Final Grade: B+


--Dave Brennan
[email protected]

 


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