Saturday, December 20, 2014

Planetary Vol. 3 Leaving the 20th Century Hardcover Review

Planetary Vol. 3 Leaving the 20th Century
DC Comics - Wildstorm
144 pages
$75.00 (2014) Omnibus
$75.00 (2010) Absolute Edition Vol. 2
$24.95 (2004) Hardcover
$14.95 (2004) Trade Paperback
ISBN 9781840239768

Contributors: Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, Laura Depuy (later Laura Martin), Richard Starkings, and Bill O'Neill

Reprints: Planetary #13-18
Elijah Snow assails the summit of a creepy castle

Synopsis: Elijah Snow was a mysterious recluse until he was recruited into the Planetary organization as the third man on their field team.  Snow has uncanny abilities and is a rare 'century baby' born on January 1, 1900.  That makes him...really old, but surprisingly spry.  He was an adventurer in his younger days and has significant, unknown memory gaps.  Jakita Wagner, perpetually bored superwoman, personally recruited Snow and the other member of the field team is The Drummer, technology savant and grunge rock burnout.  Planetary is a semi-covert group of modern archaeologists focusing on uncovering the secret history of the world.  They seek to wrest knowledge from clandestine organizations coveting alien technologies, extra-dimensional objects, ancient supercomputers, and more.  The organization is funded by the anonymous Fourth Man.

Snow visits a certain address on Baker Street in London
Planetary has run afoul of the Four, the most powerful superhumans on the planet and the secret manipulators of the world.  They enjoyed toying with Snow before his memories returned, but now he knows who the Fourth Man is and nothing will ever be the same.  We learn of Planetary's history with the Four and what really happened to Snow's memory.  The Four are brutal adversaries and willing to commit genocide to further their goals (or store their weapons), but not above playing with their food.

Snow's memories have started surfacing and we learn of his first encounter with Sherlock Holmes.  The famous detective was embroiled with a group calling itself the Conspiracy.  They ran the 18th century as the Four run the 19th century.  In a modern adventure the Planetary field team interferes with an experiment to access the Dreamtime by the Four causing some spectacular results.  Later Snow meets with the head of the Hark Corporation and wants to parlay a truce.  We learn the secret history of the Harks.

In a secret jungle there exists somewhere the lost city of Opak-Re.  Elijah Snow traveled there and became familiar with its citizens.  A self-sufficient and ancient society, the natives were super-intelligent and highly protective of their ethnic purity.  What happens when a young adventurer falls in love with a beautiful princess?
The Harks are a long family of martial arts masters

An object falls to Earth after 150 years in space.  How did it achieve this incredible orbit 100 years before the invention of rocket propulsion?  More importantly, what are the secrets of 'The Gun Club'?  We see the past and present of the Planetary organization.  They are running headlong into a monstrous confrontation with the Four, but the last scuffle ended in disaster years ago.  Snow's memories are still jumbled and will this time be any different?

Pros: Cassaday's art continues to be wholly incredible, Ellis writes intriguing history and adventure pieces, more secrets are revealed (including Jakita's origin), we get some actual character development, Victorian group the Conspiracy were interesting, lots of cool homages to various pop culture icons/genres (each issue's cover theme and log change to match the different genres)

Cons: Resolution to the Dreamtime episode seemed unrealistic (I don't think the Four would actually tolerate Planetary's direct interference while they were present), final issue to this volume was bland ('The Gun Club')

Mike Tells It Straight: This third volume of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary (here are reviews of the first and second volumes) is quite possibly the best yet for the series.  It's difficult to top the second volume's reveal in the final issue, but the reader is treated in this third volume to quite a few important pieces of Planetary history.  Art by Cassaday is top notch and Ellis puts in great writing as the main story progresses amid various flashbacks.
Elijah Snow, cock blocker to John Stone

One of the main themes of the series has been paying homage to various fictional pop culture genres (previous volumes covered Golden Age comic book heroes, Godzilla movies, and John Woo action films) and we're treated to a few in this volume.  The Conspiracy are an homage to Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Victorian age fictional heroes (Sherlock Holmes actually says the world 'extraordinary' when talking to Elijah Snow).  Additionally we have a pulp adventure stories (Lost City of Opak-Re) with the character of Lord Blackstock (a Tarzan ripoff) and Chinese Kung-Fu style movies (Hark).

I liked the balance of prior history mixed with current events in this volume.  The reader gets to know Elijah Snow the adventurer and the events leading up to his memory loss.  The Four play a pretty big role in these stories, but they're not the main focus.  We finally get a little character development for Jakita Wagner and Drums.  I'm not sure this trade collection fits the typical six-issue story arc from previous volumes since the final issue ('The Gun Club') was a filler issue.  This series continues to be a great adventure and each issue is a new revelation.  The art and writing are a perfect complement (although the characterization is pretty bland).  Definitely looking forward to the next, final volume.

TO BUY and Recommendations:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Promethea Book Four Hardcover Review

Promethea Vol. 4
DC Comics - America's Best Comics
183 pages
$24.95 (2003)
$14.99 (2003)
$99.99 (2010) Absolute Edition Vol. 2
$99.99 (2011) Absolute Edition Vol. 3
ISBN 9781401200329

Contributors: Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Jeremy Cox, and Todd Klein

Reprints: Promethea #19-25

Synopsis: Sophie Bangs was a regular college student in a future New York City where technology has advanced at a faster rate due to the influence of science-heroes.  Modern society prizes its sophistication, but Sophie learns of a deeper philosophy which has existed since the beginning of time - magic.  She seeks information on a forgotten heroine and falls headfirst into the underlying tapestry of the universe by becoming that heroine!  Now Sophie shares an existence with Promethea, a demi-goddess of imagination who lives in the Immateria.  Many incarnations of Promethea have existed throughout history and their spirits educate Sophie in her newfound abilities.
Sophie and Barbara continue on to another plane of existence
Sophie left the earthly plane to pursue the spirit of her direct predecessor, Barbara Shelley, after she died.  She drifted off into the afterlife instead of joining the other former mortal hosts of Promethea in the Immateria.  Sophie finds Barbara in the lower planes of reality and the two go on a quest to find Barbara's long lost love who they suspect is on a higher plane.  Meanwhile back on Earth, Sophie's best friend, Stacia, has been bonded with a former Promethea at Sophie's request to make sure New York is safe while she's gone.  The problem is the former Promethea likes being back in a physical body too much.
The two come to a vast precipice and must choose to continue
Sophie and Barbara are near the top of the spiritual structure of reality, but dangers still lurk within its complexities.  The pair must make a profound leap of faith in order to continue and their ordeals will be great.  Will they ever finish their quest and what awaits Barbara at the top of the universal structure?
Meanwhile back on Earth the two FBI investigators interrogate
the Smee from the first issue
Sophie's Mom is worried sick about her and Stacia is running amok as Promethea. Can Sophie regain control of Promethea or will Stacia fight to keep it?  What amount of collateral damage could two Promethea's battling with all their mystical might create?  Get ready for a nasty fight and the aftermath!    
Yet another beautiful and entrancing plane of existence
Pros: Great art by Williams, every issue has a cool new cover design, Moore packs every issue with high concept and metaphysical writing, Stacia's relationship to Promethea is pretty interesting, some great moments for both Sophie and Barbara
Things get really abstract the higher you go
Cons: A lot of spiritual/metaphysical themes from Moore, high concept and a lot of issues covering this story arc (continuing from the last volume), art by Williams is highly creative although sometimes harder to visually read
Two Prometheas spell trouble!
Mike Tells It Straight: Okay, we've got the fourth installment of Promethea by Moore and Williams.  The pair continue their epic metaphysical tale through the myriad levels of existence.  It's a lot of high concept stuff as Sophie and Barbara keep going up and up with each issue dedicated to one plane.  I have to say the ideas are pretty interesting, but it's a lot of issues and a long journey.  Impressive stuff and my hat's off to Moore/Williams for telling such a complex story, but I've got to say it can get a little tedious and I was happy to see the finale.

Trade paperback cover
Getting back to Earth was a nice treat and the reader knows the reunion between Sophie and Stacia was going to be explosive.  The last two issues dealt with the resolution of having two Prometheas running around.  It was a welcome change from the incredibly dense explanations of various aspects of spiritualism.  Promethea is a unique book and transcends the comic book genre.  It's not just about superheroes and exposes the reader to a whole new (for most) set of possibilities for how life works.  It feels like a true labor of love for Moore and Williams is pushing himself to the absolute limit.  No wonder this book got the Absolute treatment.  If you've made it this far then only one volume remains and if you're reading this review before starting the series then go back to the beginning with Vol. 1 Vol. 2 Vol. 3. I'm looking forward to the final volume.

TO BUY and Recommendations:

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Planetary Vol. 2 The Fourth Man Hardcover Review

Planetary Vol. 2 The Fourth Man
DC Comics - Wildstorm
144 pages
$75.00 (2014) Omnibus
$49.95 (2004) Absolute Edition Vol. 1
$24.95 (2001) Hardcover
$14.95 (2001) Trade Paperback

Contributors: Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, Laura Depuy, David Baron, Michael Heisler, Bill O'Neill, and Ryan Cline

Reprints: Planetary #7-12

Synopsis: Elijah Snow was a mysterious recluse until being recruited into the Planetary organization to be the 3rd man on their field team.  The other two members are Jakita Wagner, perpetually bored superwoman, and The Drummer, grunge rock burnout who talks to machines.  Planetary is a semi-covert group of modern archaeologists focusing on the secret history of the world.  They uncover the things governments and other clandestine organizations seek to suppress - alien technologies, extra-dimensional objects, and proof that magic exists.  The organization is funded by the anonymous 4th man.
Who is Ambrose Chase, the Third Man before Elijah Snow?
Snow and crew have just gone up against a member of the Four - the most powerful superhuman group on the planet and the secret manipulators of the world.  The group barely survives and the Four are apparently toying with Snow due to his lack of a complete memory.  He's lived for almost a century, but only remembers patches of it.  Who benefits from his loss of memory and what are his teammates not telling him?
Elijah Snow wants his memory back!
The field team attends the funeral of an occult detective named Jack Carter in London.  They get a look at the dark superheroes of the 1980s who were friends with Jack.  His death is not what it appears and Jakita is determined to find out the truth.  Next they visit the abandoned Science City Zero and learn its secrets from a former citizen.  The site was the dumping ground of malcontents in the US during the Red Scare of the 1950s.  They were regularly experimented on and all of the horrors were under the guidance of Randall Dowling, a member of the Four.

The attendees of John Carter's funeral - anyone look familiar?
 Flash back a few years as the Planetary field team interrupts an experiment by some of Dowling's team.  They created an fictional world and sent in a manned probe to bring something back.  What they bring back is more powerful and scary than they could ever imagine.  The 3rd man at the time was Ambrose Chase, able to distort reality in subtle ways.  He is no longer the 3rd man when Elijah Snow is recruited into Planetary nor does Snow remember ever meeting him.
John Stone, super spy!
We get a glimpse into the terrible acts the Four have perpetrated during their covert reign of terror.  Killing an intergalactic policeman, murdering the last survivor of a doomed alien race, and assassinating the emissary of a secret society of women.  Elijah has been trying desperately to remember something of his past and finally recalls a name - John Stone.  The preeminent secret agent for the last 50 years, former agent of S.T.O.R.M., and unknown to the world at large.  Snow pays him a visit and gets his memory violently jogged.  It's a new day for Planetary, but can they survive the secrets bursting from the darkest corners of Snow's mind?  Will the Four let them live long enough to find out?
It's about to get real!

Pros: Cassaday's art continues to be amazing in this series, Ellis writes a compelling conspiracy tale, more mysteries and adventures, homages to various pop culture icons/genres (each issue's cover theme and logo change to match the different genres), Snow gets even cooler (pun) as his past is revealed, best stories are the ones which advance the main plot (vs. the genre bits), great ending issue

Cons: Story still jumps around a lot, Ellis throws concepts out there without really fleshing them out, genre bits (particularly the 1980s) get a bit stale (too meta-fiction-y), while Snow's character develops a little we get almost zero development for Jakita and Drums

Mike Tells It Straight: This second volume continues Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's meta-fiction opus to comics and pop culture in general.  The first volume (reviewed here) set the story with Elijah Snow coming aboard with Planetary and the greater mystery of his fragmented memory.  Along the way we got treated to a homage of various genres - Golden Age superheroes, Godzilla/daikaiju films, Hong Kong action films, and a dark twist on the Fantastic Four (the big bad of the series thus far).  We get more homages in this next volume and a big reveal to Snow's past.

The issue with John Carter (John Constantine) is a homage to Vertigo style comics and riffs on the 1980s.  Superhero comics are the villain and Ellis portrays both Alan Moore and then Grant Morrison (Moore being supplanted by Morrison in mainstream US comics).  The next issue is based on 1950s science-fiction films with giant ants, a 50-foot woman, and more.  While both were clever I found these types of issues were less enjoyable than the ones which dealt with the real story.
Trade paperback cover

Snow trying to get his memory back was the main event.  Ambrose Chase was a cool addition to the storyline and the issue where he's introduced was intriguing.  John Stone was a riff on Nick Fury crossed with James Bond and also enjoyable to see.  The issue where we get alternate versions of Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman all squashed by the Four was ironic.  Overall I really liked this second volume and the series has been memorable thus far.  I'm seeing Ellis' formula - genre issues as filler and then a strong finish with a big reveal.  He definitely writes to fill a trade paperback (about 6 issues).  Cassaday's art continues to be spectacular and the covers are great.  Regardless, I give this series a 'must read' recommendation!

TO BUY and Recommendations:

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Planetary Vol. 1 All Over the World and Other Stories Hardcover Review

Planetary Vol. 1 All Over the World and Other Stories
DC Comics - Wildstorm
160 pages
$75.00 (2014) Omnibus
$49.95 (2004) Absolute Edition Vol. 1
$24.95 (2000) Hardcover
$14.95 (2000) Trade Paperback
ISBN 9781563896484

Contributors: Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, Laura Depuy, Bill O'Neill, Ali Fuchs, David Baron, and Wildstorm FX

Reprints: Planetary #1-6; Preview

Synopsis: Elijah Snow has been living in the desert for a decade and avoiding society.  He gets recruited to join the Planetary organization by the beautiful and powerful Jakita Wagner.  Planetary is a largely unknown and mildly covert group which function as 'mystery archaeologists'.  They uncover the secrets of the world hidden beneath the surface of society.  The ground team is always a three-person group which currently consists of:
  • Jakita Wagner - superstrong, superfast, and incredibly bored with regular society.  She is the powerhouse of the team and can handle any situation with a cool head.  Lives for a thrilling adventure or discovering an amazing secret.
  • The Drummer - fan of grunge rock, can talk to machines, and kind of a hipster weirdo.  
  • Elijah Snow - newest member of the group, nearly one hundred years old (a century baby like Jenny Sparks born in 1900), can control temperature absolutely, and an utter grumpy bastard.
Elijah Snow is a cranky old bastard
Snow's first mission with Planetary takes the team to a secret base in the Appalachian Mountains which was home to a group of superhumans from the 1940s.  The group included mystery men from around the world and remained completely undercover.  The secrets uncovered in this long-forgotten base are startling and far-reaching.  What tragic event happened to the members of this secret society to keep them forgotten?

The next mission takes the group to a remote Pacific island where a group of Japanese extremists are about to discover the astounding secret of Island Zero!  We get a glimpse at the Tokyo branch of Planetary.  Then they head to Hong Kong to investigate rumors of the ghost of a murdered cop.  We see Planetary's Hong Kong office and the hidden secrets of the afterlife.  Afterwards the team is investigating a strange object which was unearthed in an explosion beneath an office building of the Hark Corporation.  What happens next is a tragic miracle linked to the Bleed (the space between dimensions of reality).

The final, secret fight of a group of mystery men from the 1940s
Between missions Elijah Snow talks with Axel Brass, the mystery man they found beneath the Appalachians.  Both were born around the turn of the century and Snow finds a kinship with this displaced hero.  They discuss the world and its secrets.  One is cynical and one is a dreamer.  We get to learn the secret origin of Brass, but also see glimpses of other enduring heroes like Jenny Sparks and The High.

The true enemy is revealed at last to Elijah Snow.  A secret division of the United States government has been operating in the deepest shadows since the end of the second World War.  Four individuals became the product of this covert exploration and usurped its power.  These four are now puppet masters within modern society - suppressing knowledge, silencing dissension.  The team storms one of their locations, but are they ready for what they find?  
The true enemy - a group of superhuman adventurers manipulating
the world from behind the curtain.  Look familiar?
Pros: Amazing art by John Cassaday, clever writing by Warren Ellis, big mysteries and exciting adventures, keen homages to many pop culture icons/genres (they change each issue's cover logo and theme to match the different genres), intriguing concept, Elijah Snow is a cool protagonist, despite biting off of many genres it feels original, final villain is really cool, introduction by Alan Moore, nominated in 2000 for Eisner Award as "Best New Series" and "Best Continuing Series", Laura Depuy won the 2000 Eisner for Best Colorist

Cons: Story jumps around a lot, nothing is explained and concepts are just thrown at the reader, practically zero character development, bites off of one pop culture genre to another

Mike Tells It Straight: I found this book to be intriguing and an interesting departure from the typical superhero genre.  Both Warren Ellis and John Cassaday put in some of the best work in their careers in this series and it hooked me from the beginning.  Overall it's a meta-fiction exploration of pop culture genres in both comics and movies.  The biggest draw for me was Cassaday's art which put him on the map as a premier comic book artist.  Ellis had been around for years and transformed Stormwatch (a soon-to-be-cancelled superhero book from Image which was known for flashy art and terrible writing) into The Authority, a genre redefining superhero book which brought widescreen cinematic sensibilities to a stale medium.

Trade Paperback cover
My main gripe about this first volume is the lack of characterization.  We get a small glimpse into Elijah Snow's personality, but Jakita Wagner and the Drummer are both blanks.  They feel like one-dimensional stick figures.  Ellis jumps around with his plot and too many questions are left unanswered.  That's a small list of complaints.  Ellis focuses on several genres in this first volume starting with Axel Brass and his secret society of mystery men  represent the Golden Age superheroes/literary figures (Tarzan, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Fu Manchu), then Island Zero gives us the giant monster/daikaiju genre (Godzilla and it's many sequels), the ghost cop of Hong Kong is hardboiled action films (most notably by John Woo), and four from the black government agency (are a twist on the Fantastic Four).

Despite its flaws I found this book to be a captivating read.  It may be a bit stiff, but Ellis presents a neat concept and Cassaday's art is groundbreaking.  The last issue when the team takes on a superhuman that can actually withstand them was epic.  This collection sets up the rest of the series as Elijah Snow and crew work to find out the secret history of the world.  Includes the preview story which mirrors the origin of the Hulk.  Highly recommended!

TO BUY and Recommendations: