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Archive for the ‘Secret Agents’ Category

The most important holiday on the capitalist-utopia calendar, Cyber Monday, has come and gone, and that can only mean one thing:  most of the fall TV shows are either on hiatus, about to be on hiatus, or already cancelled.  That means I finally have chance to catch up on a bunch of hour-long serialized dramas, because that’s definitely how I should be spending my precious few hours between sleep and toil every day.   Here are my very scientific findings:

Constantine
Constantine 
I watched the series premiere of this, and quickly fell asleep trying to watch the second episode.  I am not a die hard fan of the Hellblazer comics (although I have a fat stack of ‘Blazer trade paperbacks I picked up in sort-of anticipation of this program and have yet to read), so I can only evaluate it on its own merits and not on how it stacks up vs. the Vertigo series.  My conclusion: this is a pile of hot garbage!  It does have a lot of pretty awesome special effects, and the pilot had one or two decent ‘scares,’ but hardly enough to sustain my attention.  And I wasn’t alone — as of this writing, NBC has suspended production on the series, which is not quite an outright cancellation but it’s certainly a sign things are on life support. GRADE: D-
 arrowseason3
Arrow
Arrow hit some real peaks last season, with the interwoven story of Oliver’s escape from the island and his confrontation with Deathstroke in Starling City delivering the series’ most satisfying and ambitious arc to date.  By comparison, season three is so far floundering.  ‘Five years ago’ timeline Oliver is now off the island and working for Amanda Waller in Hong Kong, which means there is very little drama left in the flashback sequences.  All we wanted to know for most of seasons one and two was how Ollie would escape the island — now that that has been resolved, it seems like there is no tension left and really no reason to chart the rest of Oliver’s journey back to Starling City.  In the main, present-tense storyline, there are several promising threads unraveling:  Roy Harper has developed into a full-fledged sidekick, even adopting the Arsenal moniker, but continues to struggle with the after effects of the mirakuru experimental drug, which puts Oliver in the position of becoming more and more of a father figure for Roy even as the latter gains even more self-confidence.  Oliver’s sister Thea has returned to the city, ostensibly to reopen her nightclub, but in reality she’s developed ninja techniques and is working in cahoots with Malcolm Merlin, the Big Bad from season one, back (of course) from the dead.  And, in the most delightful but underutilized plot device of all, Queen Consolidated is in the process of being absorbed by billionaire super-genius Ray Palmer (aka, The Atom), played by failed-Superman Brandon Routh.  For existing fans of the show, this season still has the enjoyable characters and relationship dynamics (Oliver-Felicity-The Atom love triangle, anyone?) to obsess over, but plotwise, it really seems to be spinning its wheels.  Of course, with the 20+ episode seasons of all of these comic book inspired shows, it’s no surprise that the first halves of seasons are usually full of filler.  GRADE: B-
flashseason1episode4
The Flash
What do you love about classic Flash comic books?  Is it the affable, nerdy, do-gooder attitude of Barry Allen, one of comics’ most beloved heroes?  Is it the crime-solving and detective work inherent in Allen’s secret identity as a forensic scientist?  Is it the Flash Facts, little bits of science (or pseudo-science) frequently thrown in to explain the Flash and supporting characters’ remarkable powers and gadgets?  Is it the somewhat goofy lineup of rogues such as Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and Gorilla Grodd?  Is the sheer joy of imagining all of the things you could do with superspeed, undoubtedly one of the most excellent of the classic comic book superpowers?  If you answered All of the Above, you should probably just go ahead and watch the Flash because it captures the vibe of the comics upon which it is based better than any comic-to-TV adaptation I can think of.  GRADE: A-
whyisyourpenis
How To Get Away With Murder
Superstar defense attorney Annalise Keating removes her many layers of makeup and her wig, turns to her husband, and utters the phrase that reverberated around the world: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”  That was the stinger at the end of one of this show’s early episodes, and it was the moment that solidified the show as yet another obsession-worthy Shonda Rhimes Special.  Just as Kerry Washington’s white hot charisma powers Scandal, much of the joy of HTGAWM comes from simply basking in the intensity of Viola Davis as she rips students to shreds, blows the tops off of courtrooms, and frequently displays heartbreaking vulnerability.  For me, an even bigger pleasure comes from watching the sexcapades of Keating’s very young, very hot, super diverse, and full-on hilarious team of junior associates.  If you like backstabbing, double-speak, network television’s most explicit boy-on-boy action, and this haircut:
lizaweilhair
you will love the hell out of this show.  GRADE: A+
Gotham
I love the comic strip Garfield minus Garfield.  By removing the fat orange cat from the strip entirely, and leaving John Arbuckle alone to contemplate his meager existence, Garfield minus Garfield creates something entirely new through the art of omission.  It takes something mildly funny and recasts it as something profoundly dark.  Gotham, which could just as easily be called Batman minus Batman, does the opposite and recasts something profoundly dark as something *very* mildly funny.  This is a tune-in-every-once-in-awhile-if-the-episode-title-seems-promising kind of show.  Recommended for fans of Batman: Forever.  GRADE: C-
Scandal
This season just makes me want to toss off my all-white winter wardrobe
 Scandal -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.
curl up on the couch with some fried chicken in my Uggs
smellymellie
sip on a nice, modestly sized glass of wine
 olivia-pope-wine
and watch it over and over and over because there’s a decent chance that this is the best season of Scandal yet.  GRADE: A
marvels-agents-of-shield
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
This series received an injection of buzz and fresh ideas when Captain America: Winter Soldier came out in the middle of its first season and completely changed the show’s status quo.  Suddenly a show about a lame bunch of do-gooder government flacks became a show about betrayal, secrets, and life on the lam.  As the second series has begun to pick up speed, it seems like Agents is failing to take advantage of the excitement and tension inherent in the Hydra storyline.  Coulson’s crew are already back on the right side of the law, with access to seemingly unlimited resources — not excitedly the underdog scenario that was promised in season one’s final episodes.  The one saving grace of this season has been the action sequences.  The fight choreography and special effects this season have been pristine — too bad you generally have to wade through 30-40 minutes of blah storytelling to get to them.  GRADE: C+
Brooklyn 99
 The funniest traditional sitcom currently on TV — in fact, maybe the only funny traditional sitcom currently on TV.  Immature gross out humor, a cast in which ‘competent white males’ take a backseat to actually competent women and men of color, genuinely lovable and delightfully flawed characters, and this face on a weekly basis:
braugher
GRADE: A-

Saturday Night Live
This has been a season full of lame hosts and totally lacking in breakout stars among the cast.  Michael Che and Leslie Jones have been delightful but underused.  Pete Davidson seems promising but has yet to develop any memorable characters — besides himself on Weekend Update.  It seems like Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam are keeping the show afloat most nights with their broad repertoires, but they’re so overused that it’s just starting to seem like schtick.  The best parts about this season have been Kyle Mooney’s weird little segments and digital shorts — he’s the one writer/player who seems to have a distinct voice at this point – and the last run of musical guests.  Prince, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson/Mystikal brought the house down over the last few weeks.
GRADE: C
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ARROWFINALE2

arrowfinale1actual2

ARROWFINALE3

Arrow concluded a 46-episode, multi-season arc by bringing everything they possibly could full circle.  In the island storyline, we finally get to see how Ollie lost Sarah for the second time and how Ollie defeats Slade and takes his eye.  In present-day story Starling City, it’s Slade that has the upper hand.  His mirakuru fueled goons have taken over the entire city, and Amanda Waller is minutes away from launching a drone strike that will level the city rather than risk the supersoldiers spreading out around the world.  Oliver develops a two-pronged plan, sending Diggle to stop Waller and leading his own team to have the final confrontation with Slade.  In the end, it’s Felicity who saves the day by putting herself in harm’s way in order to get close to Slade and deliver the mirakuru cure.  When faced with the final decision of whether to kill Slade or let him live, Oliver does the right thing, instead choosing to imprison Slade on the same island where the two first met. Tidier than a hospital corner.

But then there was this:

olicity1

And this:

olicity2

How could you play with my emotions like that, Arrow?  Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy….

Okay.  Pulling it together now.  Honest.  Aside from once again not getting to see Felicity and Oliver get together (and the sinking feeling that they never will, or worse, that they will and it will suck!), the biggest disappointment of this episode was not getting to see any of The Flash.  I could have sworn that we were promised more Grant Gustin later in the season, but in the end it looks like we only got the two-episode arc where he helps defeat Cyrus Gold.  The CW was kind enough to put out a teaser video for the series — I could go into a whole ‘nother post about my thoughts on that project, but as it relates to the Arrow finale, I just really thought they were going to find  a way to work him in there.

arrow maybe 3

They had every other character from the entire season, after all!  Nyssa al’Ghul and the League of Assassins showed up, Amanda Waller showed up and then showed up again in the stinger, Deadshot and the Suicide Squad threw a few punches, Black Canary and the new Arsenal/Speedy both suited up, and Diggle’s wife showed up in a helicopter toting an over-the-shoulder rocket launcher!  All that, and you’re telling me there was no way to work in a plucky S.T.A.R. Labs scientist whose superpower just happens to be the most convenient plot device of all time?

Humbug.

arrow maybe 2

So….which show was better this season, Arrow or Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?  And on a related note, what show am I most looking forward to returning in the fall?

S.H.I.E.L.D. had the better season finale, though it was by no means a blowout.  Arrow did have better action sequences. The final brawl with the army of Deathstroke’s goons was a thing of beauty .  And the final scene between Oliver and Slade was one of the best short scenes on TV this year, a refreshing moment of the good guy just winning, which is what we all really want to see after all, isn’t it?  But S.H.I.E.L.D. trumped with better, tighter writing, better acting, and a more infuriating “what’s gonna happen next?” series of stingers.

arrow maybe

But what about the overall course of the season?  I figured the best way to determine which show was consistently better over time was to use the scoring system common to hockey and soccer:  each show would be awarded 3 points for a Win (a Great episode), 1 point for a Draw (a Just Okay episode), and 0 points for a Loss (a Bad episode).  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was only 22 episodes, while Arrow ran for 23, so to level the playing field I’m awarding S.H.I.E.L.D. one free win — or if you like, you can count Captain America the Winter Soldier as an ‘episode,’ since it turned out to be so integral to the story, so much so that it basically saved the show.

Here are the results:

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D:

12 Wins, 7 Draws, 4 Losses

43 Total Points, out of a possible 69

Arrow:

14 Wins, 7 Draws, 2 Losses

49 Total Points, out of a possible 69

 

I worked long and hard to make this with MS Paint so you're damn right I'm using it twice.

I worked long and hard to make this with MS Paint so you’re damn right I’m using it twice.

Yes, in the end, Arrow is still the best non-animated-comic-book-inspired-show on network television!  All is right with the world!  It ended up being closer than I thought; Arrow was much stronger at the beginning of the season, but faltered a bit in the middle, while SHIELD started out pretty ‘meh’ and then really picked up steam towards the end.  The difference between the shows turned out to be just two episodes.

Which show am I more excited about for next year?  The producers of Arrow have indicated that the show will have a very different feel next season and at least one major character will be missing from the main cast (I’m guessing it’s Felicity, who will move over to the Flash for at least part of the season).  Instead of surviving on the Island, we’ll see young(er) Oliver in Hong Kong and see how he is connected to Argus and Amanda Waller.  In the main storyline, Oliver will be trying to get back Queen Consolidated — but I’m guessing he’ll have to take on a silly day job or (please god not this) start a private detective agency in the meantime.  On S.H.I.E.L.D, Coulson will be the new Director and the season will focus heavily on Skye’s mysterious origins (possibly as an Inhuman!).  The main draw for S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it will continue to tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, surely incorporating elements of Guardians of the Galaxy and leading directly into Avengers 2.  That makes it a definite must watch; Arrow still has my favorite cast and characters on TV, but with no clear sense of direction for the show and most major plotlines currently resolved, it’s very possible that they could fuck it up.

Guess what?  I’m watching both.  At least at first.

It was a thin field this year — just two superhero comic shows vying for my attention.  Next year the CW is adding The Flash, Fox is debuting Gotham, and NBC enters the fray with Constantine.  With so many comics on TV, how am I even supposed to find time to read comics?

Woe, the challenges of this modern life!

OLICITY FINAL

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SHIELDVSARROWSLOGO

As we approach the end of the season, once cohesive units begin to unravel and long-simmering plots finally boil over as dominant players are suddenly threatened by underdogs who have already overcome impossible odds.

Obviously, I’m talking about the NBA Eastern Conference where the fast-fading Pacers and the old-looking Heat are wheezing across the finish line while a resurgent Bulls, stripped of both Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, have surged into contention on the backs of Joakim Noah’s defense and DJ Agustin’s three-point shooting.

But I may as well be talking about superhero-comic based television shows.  And I will do so, for the remainder of the column.

When we last checked in, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was steadily picking up steam with a plotline about secrets within secrets within the massive spy organization that protects the Marvel Cinematic Universe from existential threats, be they extraterrestrial, Asgardian, or Robo-Nazi.  Meanwhile, the Arrow Oliver Queen found himself being hunted by Deathstroke the Terminator, finally bringing the Island-Five Years Ago and Starling City-Now plotlines together.  Arrow was still the better TV experience…but that margin was shrinking.  Has the peppy Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally caught up to its dark and sexy rival?  Only pitting this week’s episodeshead to head in a series of meaningless categories will tell us!

Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. Season 1 Episode 18

“Providence” 

vs.

Arrow Season 2 Episode 2 Episode 19

“The Man Under the Hood”

Let the battle….begin!

Round 1: I’m a Comics Nerd So Let’s Just Get the Easter Eggs Out of the Way Now

Left, newcomer Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon wielding Dr. Light's light-gun; Right, Patton Oswalt as Agent Eric Koenig in one of Nick Fury's Secret Bases

Left, newcomer Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon wielding Dr. Light’s light-gun; Right, Patton Oswalt as Agent Eric Koenig in one of Nick Fury’s Secret Bases

 Arrow: A crucial scene takes place in a S.T.A.R. Labs (ding!) secret facility where we are introduced to scientist/warehouse worker Cisco Ramon when he manages to do what Oliver hasn’t all season and knock Deathstroke on his ass.  He does so using a weapon designed by one Doctor Arthur Light (ding!).  You might recognize Cisco Ramon as the secret identity of Vibe (ding!), a character DC has been desperately trying to push to the mainstream since he is one of their very few latino characters.  After the fight, Cisco tips Felicity off to the existence of Iris West (ding!), with whom she will soon have to form a love triangle when Barry Allen finally returns to the show.

S.H.I.E.L.D.: After S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised, a secret signal embedded in his ID badge leads Agent Coulson and his team to one of Nick Fury’s Secret Bases (ding!) where they encounter Patton Oswalt as Agent Eric Koenig (ding!).  In the comics Koenig is an ex-Nazi who joined up with Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos — and he was last seen in Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors series.  Secret Bases, Agent Koenig, and every cast member constantly calling back the tagline “Agents of Nothing” can only mean one thing, nerds: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is totally doing Secret Warriors now!  On the run from Hydra with no one to trust…double agents everywhere you look…a network of secret bases in exotic locales around the globe…it’s my favorite Marvel storyline of the last five years so you can possibly see why I’m peeing my pants with excitement right now.

Advantage:  Arrow technically had more dings! but I never said I was going with the ding system so this round goes to S.H.I.E.L.D. — now you all go on and do a nice, reverent job with the original comics source material and don’t go trying to appeal to no mass audiences, ya hear?

Round 2: The ladies love bondage boys. Show me the most homoerotic screencap from this episode.

shieldvsarrowsround2

 Advantage:  As psyched as I am about the possibility of S.H.I.E.L.D. somehow morphing into a buddy cop show starring Bill Paxton, I think it’s clear that when it comes to putting nubile flesh in compromising positions with pseudo-religious overtones and a heavy, heavy does of S&M sensibility, Arrow continues to reign supreme.

Round 3:  How about a best dressed award?

shieldvsarrowsround3

Arrow: With this outfit, Thea is saying “I’m mature and businesslike enough for a conservatively cut blue-grey blazer but I’m wild and fun enough for a bare midriff.”  Bold, evocative.

S.H.I.E.L.D.: Agent May’s winter look says “I may be an ice cold ice queen, but even I need to bundle up in this snow covered soundstage.”

Advantage: I value practicality above all else, so despite the versatility on display in Thea’s day-to-night ensemble, I have to give it to the Parka.  S.H.I.E.L.D. 2, Arrow 1.

Round 4:  I watch these shows for the bad writing and the worse acting.  Which show is more over-the-top?

 shieldvsarrowsround4

S.H.I.E.L.D: The dramatic climax off this whole episode comes when Agent Coulson sacrifices life and limb and does the bravest thing he can possibly do, which is — stand out in an open clearing and loudly state his name while striking a very unintimidating pose.  Sometimes this show is like one long, boring G.I. Joe public service announcement: hey kids, sometimes all you need to do is tell the truth!  Telling the truth is great and after you do it, everyone gets invited inside for cookies and ice creams and snuggletime!

Arrow: Right after Thea Queen learns that her mother had an affair with last season’s big bad, Malcolm Merlin, an affair of which she was the unknowing progeny (“I’m the daughter of two mass murderers!”), we discover that the man Thea thought was her father also had an affair — with this season’s assistant Big Bad, played by Summer Glau (“I was your father’s soulmate!”).  That’s the CW for you.  Then there’s Oliver’s secret identity quagmire.  Bro:  everyone knows you are the Arrow.  Your only disguise is pretty much a hoody and that facepaint that Raiders fans put under their eyes.  You don’t even disguise your voice.  And every person who has anything to do with the Arrow just happens to be either employed by your company or a longtime friend of your family.  Even Laurel figured it out!  But the most absurd thing? THE MOST ABSURD THING?  It’s the scene where Thea is unpacking crates of liquor at her nightclub, Verdant, and she just randomly puts bottles of the same brand on different shelves all over the storeroom.  As a food and beverage worker for many years now, I find this cavalier approach to inventory management offensive.  Without the financial might of Queen Consolidated, I predict that Thea’s poorly managed bar will be shut down by the Starling City Liquor Commission any day now.

Advantage: Arrow, a thousand times Arrow, you beautiful disaster.

Round 5:  I know these shows are based on characters that were invented in the post-War era to sell sugar cereal to children, but is there anybody cold-blooded, execution style murder in either of them?

shieldvsarrowsround5

Advantage:  Really?  Both of them?  No shit.  Well I guess that means this is a tie.

Final Count:  S.H.I.E.L.D. 2-2-1, Arrow 2-2-1.

ghostbust219a

For the first time this season, S.H.I.E.L.D. has actually pulled even with the older, wiser (by one season) Arrow.  Can they carry this momentum on to the season finales in a few short weeks?  This is more of a nail biter than the Premier League Table.  Even though I obviously want Arrow to stomp all competition and be renewed forever and ever and for Oliver and Felicity to get married and have one thousand babies….deep breaths fangirl, calm down…I’m glad there’s not just one but two solid superhero comic book based TV shows on air right now.  That probably hasn’t happened since X-Men and Batman: The Animated Series in the early 1990s.  Huzzah, everything I loved as a child is cool now!  The culture is celebrating me and my tastes!  This is what it must feel like to be a Baby Boomer!  I hope this isn’t a sign that I’ve grown old and irrelevant, my mind closed to new ideas!

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HBY20YR

This weekend nerds all over the world celebrated Hellboy Day on the occassion of the 20th Anniversary of the first appearance of Mike Mignola’s cigar-chomping brimstone ubermensch.  Along with Jeff Smith’s BoneHellboy was the most important creator-owned genre comic of the 1990s, and it has also proved the most enduring, spawning multiple spinoffs set in the macabre “Mignolaverse” as well as videogames, animation, and two major films.  Hellboy remains the cornerstone of Dark Horse comics line-up (and will be even more so with the imminent end of Dark Horse’s Star Wars license), but since everyone and their grandma’s comics blog is talking about Hellboy today, I thought I’d take this opportunity to count down the top five Mike Mignola comics not set in the shared Hellboy universe:

Detail from Alpha Flight #29 pencilled by Mike Mignola.  Via Supermegamonkey.net

5. Alpha Flight (1985) Being Canada’s #1 super-team is a dubious distinction, but I’ve always had a soft-spot for these lovable canucks.  I haven’t read all of the Al Manlo/Mike Mignola run on this title, but I’m giving this a place on the list mostly for the above picture of Puck kicking the Hulk in the head.  Cuz the Hulk is a punk.

Batman_Gotham_by_Gaslight_001

4. Gotham by Gaslight (1989) I miss Elseworlds.  Since I have never followed DC Comics continuity as closely as I did Marvel, the DC stories that I’ve gotten the biggest thrill out of have been alternative continuities like Superman: Red Son or The Dark Knight Returns.  One of the greatest Elseworlds stories ever, Gotham by Gaslight reimagines Batman in the Victorian Era and sets him to tracking down Jack the Ripper.  Without this comic, we might never have had steampunk cosplay at comic book conventions, and where would we be then people?  WHERE WOULD WE BE THEN?

Screwballhead

3. The Amazing Screw-On Head  (2002) One-shot comics are like one night stands — often enjoyable, but quickly forgotten.  But occassionally, a one-night stand becomes The One that Got Away, and that’s certainly how many Mignola fans feel about The Amazing Screw On Head.  Its 32 pages told the story of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest special agent, a disembodied head that could be attached to different bodies to tackle different tasks, and the slim volume hinted at so much more.  The comic was optioned for a pilot by the sci-fi channel but never picked up; trufans can find the pilot (with voice work by Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon and Patton Oswalt) on DVD.

mignolaracoon1

2. Rocket Racoon (1985) Mignola illustrated all four issues of this limited series starring the Galaxy’s Most Wanted Rodent.  In anticipation of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie (and Bradley Cooper’s star turn as the voice of Rocket), Marvel reissued the entire series as a trade paperback last year.

fatgmp4

1. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Created by Fritz Leiber in the 1930s, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were a duo of adventurers that figured prominently in the history of Sword & Sorcery fiction but are largely forgotten today.  Besides the original stories, the best introduction available is this 1991 miniseries illustrated by Mignola and written by the great Howard Chaykin (who was himself one of the illustrators of a 1970s DC Comics adaptation of the same characters).

***

UndertowPREVIEW-2

Undertow #1 & 2 by Steve Orlando and  Artyom Trakhanov.  Image, 2014.

Do I detect a bit of a resurgence of mermaids and Atlanteans burbling up to the surface of the ocean of geek culture?  Aquaman taking center stage in the DCU, The Wake turning mermaids into modern sea monsters, and now Undertow, a revisionist Atlantis from Image.  Could be the beginnings of a trend.  I hope someone remakes The Little Mermaid as live action YA adventure a la The Hunger Games.  I’m thinking Juno Temple as Ariel, Colton Haynes as Prince Eric, and a CGI-reanimated Philip Seymour Hoffman as Ursula (too soon?).

Undertow is set during human prehistory, when Homo Sapiens were barely learning to use tools to hunt and the technologically advanced Homo Atlanticus were ruling over the seas.  We haven’t got much backstory about Atlantis yet — what its history is, how its society is organized, whether its a single city or a whole culture, or whether its the only civilization under the sea or one of many.  We do know that some people don’t like the way things are being run under the sea, and they’ve taken to scraping out an existence on dry land, led by the charismatic Redum Anshargal.  We see Redum through the eyes of former Atlantean soldier Ukinnu Alal, and the story follows the basic contour of the “everything you ever knew is wrong” plot common to so much fantasy about exotic cultures.

This comic gets points for creativity, for sure.  It certainly doesn’t look like anything else out there.  Artyom Trakhanov borrows from all over to create a well-worn (or well-washed) undersea culture, with hints of everything from Roman Centurion couture to Jodorowsky’s Dune visible in his designs.  The concept of Atlantis as a world power not just in ancient times but in prehistoric times is rife with possibility — I suspect that the influence Redum Anshargal’s surface dwellers come to have over the early humans they encounter will form a key plotline in this book, and opens up all kinds of conspiratorial threads of the History’s Mysteries variety.

It’s the early going for this title, but I do have to knock it for an overall lack of clarity and confidence.  I was reminded of one of last year’s promising but weary-making launches, Pretty Deadly, which similarly delivered much to look at and think about but failed to develop any real momentum in its first issues.  I know it’s unfair to knock a comic book for failing to hit a home run on its first at bat (we’re really throwing it all in the metaphorical blender today, kiddos), but with so many new titles launching all the time now (look at Image’s solicits for this Spring alone!), anything that doesn’t get its hooks into me in the early going is going back on the shelf.  I’ll wait and see with Undertow — if a trade collection or two comes out and I’m hearing good things, I’ll likely dip back in, but otherwise, I gotta make like Hov and get On to the Next One.

Original #3 cover by Ryan Sook

Original #3 cover by Ryan Sook

Quantum & Woody Vol. 1: The World’s Worst Superhero Team by James Asmus and Tom Fowler with Jordie Bellaire.   Valiant, 2013.

In other news, this is a comic, in fact a whole comic publishing company, that I’ve slept on forever and now I wish I gotten in on the ground floor because I can’t catch up with this stuff fast enough.  Kudos to Fight For Comics podcast for inspiring me to check out a Valiant title.   This is the funniest comic I’ve picked up this year — the only thing I can think of coming close is Superior Foes of Spider-Man.  It also has a surprising amount of heart.  The story revolves around two brothers after the death of their father.  One of them is dead man’s biological son, one was a foster kid who the family eventually adopted.  One is black, the other is white.  The father raised both of them on his own.  Not only is it refreshing to see a non-traditional (read: more realistic) family like this on the comics page, but the nature of these relationships opens up all kinds of possibilities to tell stories about family, parenting, race, and most of all the true nature of brotherhood.

Oh, and in issue three there’s a clown-headed, needle-toothed spider monster.,

 

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Stray Bullets: Killers #1 by David Lapham with Maria Lapham.  Image, 2014.

I’m pretty sure I thought Stray Bullets and 100 Bullets were the same thing from about 1994 to 2009.  They’re not.  One of the crucial differences?  Every issue of Stray Bullets tells a complete crime story and can be picked up and enjoyed with no prior preparation.  Like Law and Order.  100 Bullets cannot be understood unless you read the whole thing twice.  Like I don’t know what because I would never waste time watching a hundred episode TV show twice.  Guess which one of these comics I think is better?  Recommended for: people who are not squeamish about dark, twisted shit happening to fake cartoon people.

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Sovereign #1 by Chris Roberson and Paul Maybury with Jordan Gibson.  Image, 2014.

SO MANY THINGS IN THIS COMIC LOOK LIKE PENISES.

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Black Widow #4 by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto.  Marvel, 2014.

I would like the creators of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to read this comic and Jim Steranko’s old Nick Fury comics, watch the first Mission Impossible movie, some of the better James Bond flicks, and the good seasons of Alias, and think long and hard about what it means to make an action-adventure show about spies in a fictional universe of boundless possibility.

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FBP Volume One by Simon Oliver and Robbi Rodriguez with Rico Renzi.  Collects issues 1-7 of FBP ongoing.  Vertigo, 2014.

Simon Oliver and Robbi Rodriguez’s FBP is a high-concept science fiction story. It posits a near future in which the ‘laws’ of physics have come to resemble the laws of man, in that they’re easily violated. The FBP is the Federal Burea of Physics, tasked with resolving everything from distorted gravity to mirror universes to localized time dilation. But while FBP is premised on big displays of whiz-bang speculative science, its best moments arise from human drama.

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We are introduced to the Bureau as a besieged government agency on the verge of being supplanted by a rising private sector physics industry. It quickly becomes apparent that the Bureau’s real responsibility is not so much repairing breaches of space-time but policing and regulating the people and corporations that would seek to use the ‘new physics’ for their own gain. Of course, those are the same people and corporations who are peddling their influence to defang the young FBP — basically, FBP is the Securities Exchange Commission post-2008.

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The hero of FBP is Adam Hardy, a young field agent whose father was present at the birth of the new physics (and who may actually have caused the change in the immutable laws of reality). He contends with the data-minded bureaucrat Agent Cicero and finds a hard-ass partner in the form of Agent Rosa Reyes.

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The first volume of FBP was a bit like a David O. Russell movie: lots of fantastic scenes and moments among its core cast, lots of nice things to look at, and not a lot of clarity or direction as far as the plot. The collection held rapt my attention, but as soon as I put it down, I had trouble processing or even recalling what I’d just read. The creators’ primary concern for now seems to be building a cohesive world and developing backstories for their main characters, tasks which they’ve done an admirable job of so far. But for FBP to make the leap into a gotta-have-it ongoing Vertigo title, they’ll have to develop longer, more complex plot arcs while also achieving a much higher level of storytelling clarity. Things do seem to be moving in that direction, as each story arc in this first trade paperback is a bit stronger than the last; it’s just a matter of keeping that momentum up.

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Every so often disastercouch takes a break from digging through streaming video services looking for something to watch and actually sits down to watch something.  On the even rarer occassions that a film is deemed Worth Watching, it is recorded here.

With a public debate over the implications of our surveillance society at full roar, it seems a good time to revisit Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant 1974 film The Conversation.  Upon its release, many people viewed the director’s followup to The Godfather as a commentary on the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s White House tapes.  Of course, the movie was actually written before Nixon took office and it would have been impossible for the crew to be aware of certain aspects of Watergate that the film seems to touch on because they were not revealed until the movie was finished — but one of the common aspects of great art is that it has resonances and relevances beyond what the creator ever intended.  Coppola could not have imagined WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, the NSA’s Prism program, or the unprecedented amount of personal data that governments and corporations presently have access to on a routine basis, either.  But his Conversation, now forty years old, still has much to contribute to our present conversation about the relative values of privacy and security for the individual and society.

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul and John Cazale as Stanley

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul and John Cazale as Stanley

On screen, the contours of this debate are represented entirely by the protagonist Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, a legendary surveillance expert whose custom equipment and unique expertise are available to the highest bidder.   An early sequence of scenes shows Harry to be aggressively anti-social:  his apartment has four locks and he is dismayed when he discovers his landlady has a set of keys, even though she’s only used them to leave him a birthday gift.  His hobby is playing saxophone along to jazz records.  His girlfriend doesn’t know what he does for work or how to get in touch with him, he just shows up when he likes and when she asks personal questions, he storms out.  Today, we would probably think of someone like Harry as being “on the spectrum,” but at the time he was a “nebbish” or a “nudnik.”

Most of the conflict in the film spools out from the idea that while Harry is capable of stealing any secret, he cannot accept that anyone would be able to steal secrets from him.  When a fellow surveillance expert makes a recording of Harry as a gag, he is thrown into not just a rage but a kind of existential despair.  This same dynamic is at play in the famous final scene, when Harry destroys literally everything in his apartment searching for a bug that may or may not be there.  This gets to a key point regarding encryption and data security — the tools of surveillance can always turn the surveyor into the surveilled.  Any technology that a government uses to spy on its own citizens or those of another country can in turn be used against it; hackers intuitively understand this, and promote a culture of transparency which serves to level the playing field.  But today’s NSA does not play by the same rules; for example, a recent piece in Wired revealed that the NSA had avoided revealing certain security flaws to US companies so that they could use them to spy on foreign actors, even though those same flaws could be (and likely were) used to commit crimes against American companies and citizens.

John Cazale discusses the plan to tap the untappable conversation

John Cazale discusses the plan to tap the untappable conversation

The film’s other great point regarding surveillance is that raw intelligence is ambiguous and acting without sufficient information can have dire consequences.   In the film’s opening sequence, Harry and his team attempt to record the conversation between a young couple as they circulate through San Francisco’s Union Square during the busy lunch hour.  The pair believe that they cannot be recorded because they never remain stationary, they are in an open area far from any possible planted bugs, and the square is full of ambient noise from street performers and the crowd itself*.  Of course, Harry is able to make the recording by utilizing three separate directional microphones and then combining the three tracks into one master.  Throughout the film, he listens over and over again to the conversation, each time hearing different things as he adjusts the relative level of the three recorded tracks.  Even though the words are the same, it is almost as if he is hearing three totally different conversations because so much meaning is carried by vocal inflection (Coppola actually did record separate vocal tracks to accomplish this).

Harry's sweater game so crucial

Harrison Ford’s sweater game so crucial

Harry’s understanding of the nature of the conversation also changes as he learns more about the people who have hired him to make the tapes — the Director (Robert Duvall) and his terrifying assistant (Harrison Ford).  Eventually, Harry comes to believe that he must take action in order to prevent the young couple he’s recorded from coming to harm — but of course he learns that his interpretation of his events has been all wrong, and every action he’s taken trying to make things right has only caused the situation to spiral further out of his control. It’s a tidy metaphor for  the many moral quandaries that faces the surveillance state: when to act, when to remain hidden so as not to tip your hand, when to wait for more information.  We ask these questions of our intelligence agencies all of the time — 9/11 and the more recent Benghazi scandal are just two 21st century examples of intelligence agencies seemingly having all of the intel and still failing to act appropriately.  In both cases, all of the signs were there but it was only possible in hindsight to see what they were pointing to.  The Conversation is a lesson in this very same type of ambiguity, as it crescendos to a conclusion that is shocking even though we ought to have seen it coming the whole time.

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Beyond (or perhaps beneath) the examination of the surveillance society, this movie has much to say about the filmmaking process itself, and of course the two themes are not unrelated.  In one key scene, Harry is trying to listen to the tapes while his assistant Stan (John Cazale) pesters him.  Stan wants to know more about the couple — who they are, who hired Harry to tape them, any kind of background or anything.  When Harry becomes irritated Stan argues that his curiosity is harmless, just human nature.  Harry replies that he doesn’t have any insight, and furthermore, if Stan had been worrying less about the couple and more about making the recording, the quality wouldn’t have been so poor.  Paradoxically, Harry is suggesting that by paying less attention to the content of the conversation and more attention to the way in which that content is recorded, the content, too, would become more clear.

In this scene, Harry stands in for a filmmaker, perhaps Coppola himself, as he argues with his critics, his producers, or his studio executives over how a film ought to get made.  On the one side, the know-it-alls, who say there needs to be more story, more character, more background, that it is human nature to be curious about these things and it would be cruel for a film to deny its audience the satisfaction of knowing.  On the other side, the filmmaker, the one who has actually made films, claiming that he doesn’t care about human nature, or much about story, or characters — that he cares about film, about capturing things accurately on film, and that if one were to trust the process of filmmaking, the end result would be something that captured more of human nature than one could ever hope to with a plain and transparent script.  The Conversation is, of course, just such a film, a film that denies its audience much in the early stages so that it can reveal greater truths in its whole.  It is a film about trust as much as it is about paranoia, because it is a film that trusts the camera, that trusts its performances (especially young Hackman’s tour de force), and most importantly, that trusts its audience.

You can view a larger set of screencaps from this film on my tumblr.

*Though it is the place where the couple feels safest, the design of Union Square, with a central tower overlooking an open plaza, closely resembles a panopticon.

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Okay Marvel, you've essentially proven that Chris Pratt + anything with Rocket Raccoon = me giving you free publicity for your billion dollar movie.  You win.

Okay Marvel, you’ve essentially proven that Chris Pratt + anything with Rocket Raccoon = me giving you free publicity for your billion dollar movie. You win.

As it has been every week for the last decade, the biggest news in comic this week is a movie. The trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy has appeared, to mixed reviews. One geek-in-residence at my comic shop claimed it will be “bigger than Star Wars.” Meanwhile, Comic Book Resources has already projected it will bring the Marvel Studios hit-parade to an embarrassing, tuba-players-tripping-all-over-each-other*, halt. For the obsessives, the folks who are already scouting their spots in line and checking if ComicCon bylaws will allow them to bring their shitzu if “she’s dressed as Rocket Raccoon and obviously an essential element of my cosplay!” then there’s this list from Comics Alliance of all of the things that can gleaned from the 90 second teaser trailer.

I think it looks pretty good and as far as bankability at the box office, my money’s on Chris Pratt. Everyone loves that guy!

Also, dear Zoe Saldana: please do something in this movie.  You seem like you can probably act.  Don’t just let Hollywood dip you in alien bodypaint and dangle you out there like nerdbait.  Even Barbarella had more self-determination.  Dear Hollywood: Be nicer to Zoe Saldana!  Besides, y’know, paying her like millions of dollars to kiss Zachary Quinto, I guess that’s…being pretty nice.

Yep, I officially lost the plot of this introduction.  I should become a DC Comics line editor!

***

Read on for reviews of comics I bought this week, some of which may have actually been published this week, if you’re lucky.

Left: Piotr Kowalksi's MK Hulk.  Right: apparently the exact same characters with the exact same faces, from Piotr Kowalski's SEX.

Left: Piotr Kowalksi’s MK Hulk. Right: apparently the exact same characters with the exact same faces, from Piotr Kowalski’s SEX.

Marvel Knights HULK #1 by Joe Keatinge and Piotr Kowalski with Nick Filardi. Marvel, 2014.

Piotr Kowalski wins at drawing Parisian street scenes, trees reflected in the river Seine, crowded Metro stations, bodies floating face down in water, little minimalist gallery show rooms, dimly lit jazz clubs, and guys stabbing themselves in the neck with Gamma Serum.  He sucks at giving characters a unique look (see above).  And he might suck at drawing the Hulk. Wouldn’t really know on that last bit, as the Hulk only appears in two panels of this Hulk-titled comic book, and even then, in a flashback. Hopefully by issue two something will make Bruce Banner angry, though one would think waking up surrounded by nothing but French people would have done the trick by around page three.

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Heavy Metal vol. 1 no. 13, April 1978.

HELLS YES! I couldn’t believe this was only five bucks, because I got my money’s worth about four pages in to the first story, “Den” by the great Richard Corben, when a topless dragon rider, a barbarian prince, and a forced-blowjob scenario combined to deliver one of the most bizarre, hilarious, and weirdly erotic things I’ve ever seen on the printed page.

Druillet!  I want this as a huge backpiece tattoo yesterday.  Scan via comicvine.

Druillet! I want this as a huge backpiece tattoo yesterday. Scan via comicvine.

This was the American Heavy Metal’s first anniversary issue, and it captures the magazine at a great time — when they still had reams and reams of early Metal Hurlant material that they could translate and present fresh to the North American audience. Thus, this issue features the holy trinity of Corben, Moebius, and Druillet, along with guest editor Sean Kelly’s long, strange anthology strip “Paradise 9”, which seems to feature various MH/HM contributors aping each other’s styles and characters in a pyschedelic metafiction that I don’t have the right chemicals to appreciate right now.  CountZeroOR has a detailed recap of this issue here.

Uncolored, unlettered slapfight between henchmen from Mike Hawthorne's blog.

Uncolored, unlettered slapfight between henchmen from Mike Hawthorne’s blog.

Deadpool #23 by Brian Posehn, Gerry Duggan, and Mike Hawthorne with Jordie Bellaire. Marvel, 2014.

This Agent Coulson thing has to stop. White middle aged male bureaucrats are inherently boring! His boringness is all over this comic, he was boring it up in Black Widow this week, and it looks like he’s about to bore readers of an otherwise appealing Secret Avengers reboot as well. Agent Coulson is like Peyton Manning, throwing six yard screen passes all day and then going home to watch tape of his next opponent all night. Effective? Admittedly yes. Dreadfully dull? Also yes.

Other than that this is a hoot, the closest thing to Archer in comic form, albeit with the sex/violence ratio flipped considerably further towards Violence. The best part of this issue: a pair of evil henchmen arguing over who’s better at mixing up WMD’s: “I’ve been making poisonous gas since before Saddam, kid, I was gassing people while you were still swimmin’ around in your daddy’s baggage.”

Detail from Shaolin Cowboy #4 by Geoff Darrow.  Via Unleash the Fanboy.

Detail from Shaolin Cowboy #4 by Geoff Darrow. Via Unleash the Fanboy.

Shaolin Cowboy #2 & #4 by Geoff Darrow. Dark Horse, 2013 & 2014.

I think there’s a strong chance that this volume of Shaolin Cowboy will be closely studied by students of sequential art for many years. On first blush, its ‘extreme’ subject matter, a gruesome fight of one man against hundreds of zombies, suffers from the banality of excess — little more than a comic adaptation of the Dead Rising games. Underneath the hood, it is remarkable as:

  • A formalist exercise in perspective, motion, and kinesiology
  • A zen exercise in repetition and meditation
  • A rejection of literary storytelling technique in favor of the cinematic and purely visual
  • A lesson in Eastern/Buddhist conceptions of time and circularity
  • A paeon to chainsaws and kung-fu

I’d really like to discuss the ending of issue 4 but for once I think this is something worth not spoiling, so if you’ve read it hit me up in the comments or on twitter because I’m dying to talk about this comic!

*My favorite phrase?  “Seven Tuba Pileup.”

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