Sunday, December 22, 2013

Top 10 (Ten) Season Two Review

Top 10 Season Two
DC Comics - America's Best Comics
32/ea. = 160 pages (2008-2009)
$2.99/ea. = $14.95 total

Published: Top 10 Season Two #1-4; Top 10 Season Two Special #1

Contributors: Zander Cannon, Kevin Cannon, Gene Ha, Alex Sinclair, Todd Klein, Da Xiong, and Rob Leigh

Synopsis: Neopolis is a city like no other on Earth.  It was built to accommodate the legions of science-heroes (and their counter-part villains) born out of the World War II conflict.  The city is home to science-heroes, super-villains, talking animals, vampires, mutants, robots, and even demi-gods.  Imagine a city where everyone has powers and the uncanny becomes the mundane.  The greatest problem facing Neopolis is how to keep order among a populace of science-heroes.  Crimes still occur, but the degree of complexity increases exponentially in a city of super-beings.

The Neopolis Police Department was created to keep order and is backed by a multiversal peace-keeping organization as their 10th Precinct - Top 10 for short.  The officers of Top 10 are tough and have seen it all.  They include Kemlo 'Hyperdog' Caesar, Irma 'Irmageddon' Wornow, Jackie 'Jack Phantom' Kowalski, Duane 'Dust Devil' Bodine, John 'King Peacock' Corbeau, and Peter 'Shock-Headed Peter' Cheney among others.  Two officers are on leave - Jeff Smax and Robyn 'Toybox' Slinger (who recently finished her first year with the department).

Top 10 recently dealt with a major crisis within the multiversal peace-keeping force which resulted in a new commissioner being selected, David Moon Gilbert.  He's somewhat of a tyrant who demands order among the troops and institutes severe adherence to protocol.  He installs robotic sentry receiver units in each precinct house to monitor and frequently micro-manage staff.  Officers are ordered to wear traditional uniforms instead of individual attire and non-standard ordnance is banned.  No surprise the new rules are very unpopular.
From left - Kemlo 'Hyperdog' Caesar, Girl Two, David Moon Gilbert's
automatic sentry, and Captain Steve 'Jetman' Traynor
Gilbert transfers one of his best officers to Top 10 named Slipstream Phoenix.  He's met with suspicion and rudeness due to being seen as a spy and lapdog (he wears the standard uniform and sticks to the rules).  Also joining the force is Girl Two who looks exactly the same as Girl One, but doesn't share her same memories or personality.  Irma was the former's partner and is unhinged by the appearance of a replacement. A whole new crop of problems are faced by the officers of Top 10 both from within and without.

One dozen strangled girls materialize out of nowhere in front of the precinct with no leads.  Who could be the murderer and how did he kill all of the girls within a few minutes of each other?  There's trouble at home for Lieutenant Cathy 'Peregrine' Colby when she catches her husband crossover-dressing.  Someone is giving kids magic words which transform them into powerful beings who are running amok.  It's up to Duane and Peter to solve the case, but Peter has been falling further into a self-destructive spiral.  He's becoming dangerously unstable and unpredictable.  What will this next year hold for the officers of Top 10?

Pros: Gene Ha's artwork is detailed and complex - he hides little cameos of popular culture fictional characters into the backgrounds, the Cannons do a great writing job to capture the feel of the original series by Alan Moore, continues the great concept of a city populated by superheroes

Cons: First issue's colors by Sinclair overpower Ha's art (thankfully the colors tone down in later issues), series is cut inexplicably short at four issues without a full resolution to all the sub-plots, special issue was a side-story

Mike Tells It Straight: Zander Cannon did layouts for the first Top 10 series (Vol. 1 Vol. 2) and penciled the spinoff Smax book.  He's been with the series since the beginning and knows the characters.  Top 10 was a multi-Eisner award winner for both the first series and prequel graphic novel, Top 10: The Forty-Niners. Both were critically acclaimed and some of my favorite books of the past decade, but disappeared after Alan Moore cut his ties with DC Comics once again (he was backdoored into working with DC Comics after they acquired Jim Lee's Wildstorm group who Moore had originally agreed to have publish his ABC line).  A disastrous mini-series called Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct was released in 2005 and I thought that was it for the series.  It was that bad.

When Season Two was announced without Moore involved I was expecting another flop to put the nail in the coffin, but was pleasantly surprised to discover Zander and Kevin Cannon (no relation) nailed the feel of the first book.  Alan Moore has big shoes to fill and the pair do an admirable job.  The book fits almost seamlessly into continuity by occurring at the same time as Smax (both Toybox and Smax are on leave in this one) while Beyond the Farthest Precinct is set five years into the future.  The Cannons have multiple sub-plots going at once which was a big feature of the first series.

The best part of Season Two is the return of Gene Ha!  His artistic vision and excessive attention to detail were an equal contributor to Moore's writing in the first series.  He's amazing and the awesome popular culture fictional character cameos return (a few X-Men from the Age of Apocalypse appear and many more).  The art's a real treat...after the first issue. The character coloring is excessive in the first issue as Sinclair's colors quite noticeably overpower Ha's artwork.  I think it's an attempt to meld the amazing coloring technique used by Art Lyon from The Forty-Niners (which won an Eisner Award) by Alex Sinclair.  It doesn't work and the creative team seems to realize it.  The colors settle down after the first issue.

I was really disappointed with this series because it doesn't really end.  It was originally planned for eight issues and two specials, but gets cut in half by DC Comics due to projected low sales.  The Cannons and Ha really start to get going and are then forced to end the series before even one quarter of the sub-plots are resolved.  It's a real shame and could have been another great series.  I bet trade paperback/collected edition sales would have made the book profitable over it's lifetime.  Seems shortsighted to me and I lament what could have been.  From interviews I think Cannon has enough material for another Top 10 series and Ha wouldn't mind working on it again.  Maybe someday, but Season Two is the last work from the franchise as it stands.

TO BUY and Recommendations:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top 10 (Ten) Beyond the Farthest Precinct Trade Paperback Review

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct
DC Comics - America's Best Comics
136 pages
$14.99 (2006) Trade Paperback
ISBN 9781401209919

Contributors: Paul Di Filippo, Jerry Ordway, Wendy Broome, Jeromy Cox, Randy Mayor, Jonny Rench, and Todd Klein

Reprints: Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct #1-5 (of 5)

Synopsis: It's been five years since Robyn 'Toybox' Slinger joined Precinct 10 (Top 10 for short) during one of the craziest year's in the precinct's history.  Things have changed in Neopolis, a city completely populated by science-heroes and extraordinary beings who don't fit into normal society.  Top 10 polices the city and is aligned with a multiversal peace-keeping force led by a Commissioner residing in another dimension.  The precinct's lineup has also changed in these five years and a new set of recruits are learning the ropes.

A new threat has emerged in the skies over Neopolis - the Hell Ditch Pilgrim who appears to be a fearsome cyborg with vast powers.  What is his link with the new drug called 'Darkshots' recently introduced into the city and primarily targeting robots?  Captain Steve 'Jetman' Traynor faces stiff bureaucratic pressure after the Pilgrim appears and his relaxed command style is criticized by the newly-elected mayor, Albert Famaile (literally a talking-baboon).
Recognize any of these faces in the crowd?  
The veteran officers get split up and paired up with the new recruits:
  • Duane 'Dust Devil' Bodine is a science cowboy paired with Chelle 'Curlew' Chambliss, an avian (human body and bird's head) with an ear-splitting sonic scream.  
  • Peter 'Shock-Headed Peter' Cheney generates massive amounts of electricity and notoriously intolerant of robotic citizens (called 'clickers' as a derogatory) is joined up with 'The Subliminal Kid' Luhan, for all intents and purposes a human with a television head able to broadcast any type of image.  Is Luhan a 'clicker' and can Cheney accept him?
  • Cathy 'Peregrine' Colby flies with artificial wings and is a devout Christian.  She gets teamed with Parsifal 'Hoodoo Priest' Congo, an apparent tribal witch doctor able to summon large deities to perform requested tasks (like moving rubble or battling criminals).  The two new partners have wildly clashing religious beliefs.  
  • Wanda 'Synaesthesia' Jackson can see her surroundings with an extra sense which borders on psychic 'feelings'.  She is paired with Paulie 'Saltator' Oldwood who is a young man with enhanced physical abilities.  Her experience is undermined by his irresponsible attitude and disregard for the rules.  The fact he only wears a pair of swimming trunks and has an awesome body may be a bit distracting.
  • Jackie 'Jack Phantom' Kowalski can turn intangible and loves women, but has a fairly unsuccessful love life.  She gets teamed with Jenny 'Panthalassa' the mermaid!  Jackie gets a little distracted herself since Jenny doesn't wear any clothes and has a beautiful body!  Jenny's hydro-kinesis comes in pretty handy when they get an assignment to catch a monster in the Neopolis Bay.  
  • Irma 'Irmageddon' Wornow wears a cybernetically enhanced war suit equipped with a frightening arsenal including a tactical nuke.  Her new partner is Jeff Smax's sister (who also happens to be his lover), Rexa Smax.  Just imagine the stoic Smax as a woman, but she's nice.  Yeah, it's hard to picture. 
Ordway's covers are reminiscent of old Silver
Age superhero comics
When the mysterious Rumor surfaces you know things are bad!  What's the deal with Girl Fifty-Four, the newest version of the classic Girl One model (killed in the first Top 10 series)?  Can the officers of Top 10 survive the endless jungle of red tape and bureaucracy so they can save Neopolis?

Pros: This mini-series is a sequel to the award-winning Top 10 series and Smax, Jerry Ordway is a very capable and veteran artist - he adds a plethora of fun fictional character cameos just like Gene Ha did, Paul Di Filippo is an amazing science-fiction author with many successful books and adds a few neat concepts to the story

Cons: The team of Ordway/Di Filippo completely butcher the Top 10 universe, Ordway's art is more cartoony than Ha's hyper-detailed and gritty art, too many story threads crammed into too few issues, ending resolution was rushed and glossed over quickly

Mike Tells It Straight: I was really excited to see a sequel to the critically-acclaimed (and one of my personal favorites) Top 10 series (see reviews for Vol. 1 Vol. 2 The Forty-Niners Smax).  When I heard Alan Moore, Gene Ha, and even Zander Cannon weren't involved it made me worried.  Then I found out Jerry Ordway (prolific comics veteran and long-time Superman artist/writer) and Paul Di Filippo (equally prolific science-fiction writer and author of The Steampunk Trilogy) were the two creators it put me somewhat at ease. Well, sorry to say, but this pair completely missed the mark.

Ordway's art was at polar opposites to Gene Ha's iconic depiction of the officers of Top 10.  Ha's art was hyper-detailed, gritty, and refreshing.  Despite being highly capable Ordway's art felt like extremely generic  superhero-genre work and detracted from the realism set forth in the original series.  Probably the most enjoyable part of Ha's art was the many cameos of pop culture fictional characters he snuck into every panel.  It was quite a kick and Ordway admirably follows suite, but he chooses more cartoony characters which feels a bit out of place (Ha would at least render the cartoon characters in realistic detail to add a new dimension to them).

Di Filippo got one thing right
 - the Mayor is a talking baboon!
Di Filippo's a famous science-fiction writer, but fairly new as a comic book writer.  He had some interesting ideas (superspace, some of the new characters), but his plot was hopelessly cramped by the short length of the series (at only five issues vs. twelve for the original series).  The result was a mess of sub-plots with painfully brief attention given to each before the final act.  I speculate the series was cut short prematurely by the publisher due to low sales and/or there were scheduling conflicts with the creators (Di Filippo in particular).

The pair of creators and short length of this mini-series successfully drained any life out of the Top 10 characters.  It was a travesty in light of the work which came before by the original creators.  The story felt rushed, characters two-dimensional, and scripting awkward.  No time was spent to refamiliarize the reader with the returning characters and even less time was spent on new characters.  One of Top 10's core concepts is the juxtaposition of superheroes with the mundane everyday, but this series throws this aside and attempts to make the series another lame superhero book.  The drama was killed in a mad rush to merely finish the main plot.  It was horrible!  A brief sequel (Top 10 Season Two) was released after this miserable series and I'm hoping Zander Cannon (Ha's inker for most of his run) with his intimate familiarity with these characters can do a better job.  Stay tuned!

TO BUY and Recommendations:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Promethea Book Two Hardcover Review

Promethea Vol. 2
DC Comics - America's Best Comics
176 pages
$24.95 (2001) Hardcover
$14.95 (2001) Trade Paperback
$99.00 (2009) Absolute Edition Vol. 1
ISBN 9781563899577

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

Reprints: Promethea #7-12

Synopsis: In a future New York City where decades of influence from science-heroes has evolved technology to a new level - anti-grav cars, Elastagel nano-tech, and advanced medical procedures.  The old ways seem forgotten, but they're just waiting for the spark of remembrance to reignite their flames.  One flame is reignited by college student Sophie Bangs while researching a fictional comic book character named Promethea.  She uncovers a bizarre history for the character predating the comic's publication.  After interviewing the wife of the late comic publisher Sophie is embroiled in a shadow world of intrigue and actually becomes Promethea!

Bill Woolcott's gender-bending Promethea
Promethea is a goddess of creativity and knowledge.  As her latest incarnation Sophie instantly inherits a heavy rogues gallery including an entire secret society, called The Temple, which has existed for centuries and is totally dedicated to her eradication.  Promethea can travel to another plane of existence called the Immateria where imagination spawns.  Her previous incarnations still exist in this place and they step up to mentor Sophie in her newfound abilities.

Sophie meets Bill Woolcott who drew the Promethea comic and was secretly the actual heroine from the 1940s to the 1960s.  He's the only man to ever don the mantle of Promethea and believe me honey he was comfortable assuming the guise of a beautiful woman!  We learn his origin and tragic ending.  Meanwhile in the physical world the hospital where Barbara Shelley is being treated with terminal wounds becomes the nexus for a massive throwdown.

Seems the Painted Doll is looking to finish the job on killing one of the Five Swell Guys, New York's premier science-heroes, who is still hospitalized after their encounter the same night Sophie becomes Promethea.  The Temple hired Mr. Solomon to destroy Promethea and he unleashes a host of demons into the hospital against the inexperienced Sophie.  She's going to need a miracle and you'll never guess her solution.  It's a trial by fire you won't want to miss!
A horde of demons attack the hospital to get Promethea
Who are The Temple and how will Sophie deal with them?  Jack Faust is a powerful magician who approached Sophie after she first became Promethea.  He's a liar and dirty old man, but he knows the secrets of magic which Sophie believes she must learn to complete her training as Promethea.  His deal - let Promethea sleep with him in exchange for learning magic.  What a total skeez!  How desperate is Sophie and will she let the pristine form of Promethea be soiled by the touch of a dirty magician?

The Caduceus explains the origins of magic and
the universe through the tarot deck
New York is celebrating New Year's 2000 when the Y2K bug hits all the Elastagel in the world!  The Five Swell Guys mobilize, but can they stop a malfunctioning nano-tech swarm by themselves?  Nope!  Then Sophie asks her Caduceus (the twin snakes on Promethea's staff) to tell her about magic and they weave a tale of the universe.  

Pros: Williams' art is complex and skillful, Moore writes some interesting stuff here and delves into a lot of magical philosophy, great action at the hospital showdown (and great thinking by Sophie to fight the demon hordes), an entire issue dedicated to sex and magic, won the 2001 Eisner Award for Best Single Issue (Promethea #10)

Cons: This book is dense with convoluted/complicated art and concepts - lots of splash pages with creative panelling and profuse explanations of magic, sex with a dirty old still sex with a dirty old man

Mike Tells It Straight: This second volume of Alan Moore's Promethea was better than the first although it contained a massive amount of conceptual theories of the universe.  Moore studies magic and several issues were consumed purely on these ideas.  It's pretty interesting stuff with captivating theories, but was fairly long and mildly tedious to read.  The action improves with a great showdown between the forces of good and evil in the hospital where Barbara Shelley is slowly expiring.  The existential issues far overshadow the action.
Jack Faust is a player and makes creepy sex with a dirty old man into a
journey of spiritual revelation.  Perv!
An entire issue is dedicated to sex and the philosophies of magic.  It won an Eisner Award which is pretty impressive although I didn't buy into it completely.  "No emission" my ass!  The story progresses as Sophie starts down the path of magic and learns more about being Promethea.  Williams' art gets better in this volume and he uses a variety of visual techniques.  They range from splash pages, sideways panels, and many creatively designed panels.  He's very creative and has great technique!

Trade paperback cover to volume two
Many issues have themes, but overall the series is a uniquely creative triumph both visually and thematically.  Its underlying subject matter is heavy and this is groundbreaking stuff presented here.  Definitely for mature readers and much different than the other America's Best Comics series.  I can see why it was adapted into the Absolute format with Williams' detailed and creative art.  I'm looking forward to reading the further exploits and revelations awaiting Sophie as she grows into her role as Promethea.

TO BUY and Recommendations:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Top 10 (Ten): The Forty-Niners Hardcover Review

Top 10: The Forty-Niners
DC Comics - America's Best Comics
112 pages
$24.99 (2005) Hardcover
$17.99 (2007) Softcover
$99.99 (2013) Absolute Edition
ISBN 9781563897573

Contributors: Alan Moore, Gene Ha, Art Lyon, and Todd Klein

Publication History: Original Graphic Novel (OGN) - first released as a hardcover in 2005, then a softcover in 2007, and also included in the Top 10 Absolute Edition along with the complete first twelve-issue series.  

Synopsis: World War II has ended and the proliferation of science-heroes returning from the war has created a social panic.  All of the heroes (and their counter-part villains) are transferred to a new city being built for the sole purpose of housing them.  It is Neopolis and the strangest city on Earth.  These beings include true superhumans with augmented powers, genius-level intellects, regular humans with technological gimmicks, and even talking animals.  The city becomes the oddest melting pot of weirdos ever to be seen and with it comes an entirely new set of problems.
The first image of the city is breathtaking to say the least
Steve Traynor was known as Jetlad during the war and was the youngest pilot at age 10.  He's a genius behind the stick of an airplane, but now he's been relocated to Neopolis.  On the train over he meets an old adversary-turned-comrade, the Sky Witch, Leni Muller.  She defected to the Allies partway through the war and is also heading to live in the new city.  They share a cabin with an actual vampire and later discover vampire gangs are the primary form of organized crime in Neopolis.  The two former flyers strike up an immediate friendship while dealing with the extraordinary experiences in this experimental city.

Steve meets a nasty little vampire on the train
to Neopolis, also a robot
What do former science-heroes do once the war and their crusade to fight spies has ended?  They face a harsh reality and then start looking for work.  Vigilantes can no longer take justice into their own hands by depriving criminals their rights to due process.  Parents are bringing up child-endangerment questions to heroes with kid sidekicks.  Many of the masterminds behind Neopolis' design are former Nazis pardoned by the government in order to gain technological secrets.  Can these so-called 'reformed' criminals and murderers be trusted?  The city needs a strong police force to contain the inevitable ticking time bomb.  Enter the fledgling Neopolis Police Department (NPD).

Vampires and robots are both lumped in with the superheroes, but are very different and prolific.  The heavy concentration of vampires in Neopolis is a major threat to civil peace.  They run organized crime, are known as the Cosa Nosferatu, and thrive in the shadows.  Vampires are set to become a literal epidemic in the city if an intervention is not planned.  Robots are similarly vast in numbers, but not as overtly threatening.  A slum forms where all of the robots are housed and they instantly become the target of bigotry including use of the derogatory term 'clickers'.

Leni and Steve are not the only ones struggling to adapt to life in Neopolis.  The city soon becomes a powder keg ready to explode!  Vampire numbers swarm to threaten everyday citizens, the genocidal ex-Nazi geniuses may be hatching a plot to take over the world, and the NPD are being questioned about whether they can handle the problems of the city.  Military intervention may become a reality, but how do you police a city with jets and tanks?  The city of Neopolis undergoes a trial by fire!

Pros: Moore's writing is top notch with great characters and lots of great drama, excellent prequel to the Top 10 series which perfectly explains/elaborates on the founding of Neopolis, Gene Ha's artwork is insane! - practically every panel has little 'easter eggs' in the background (where he draws references to many other fictional pop culture characters/series), colors by Art Lyon are incredible and really elevate Ha's work to the next level, mature storyline, a few cool plot twists
Those darn ex-Nazi mad scientists are at it again!

Cons: Much shorter page count and story feels a bit rushed, plot is more simplistic compared to original series, a couple silly parts (like Private Iron)

Mike Tells It Straight: Alan Moore and Gene Ha follow up their Eisner award-winning (2000 Best New Series, 2001 Best Continuing Series) series Top 10 with this prequel original graphic novel.  It's relatively short in comparison (less than half the page count of the first series), but packs a ton of details.  Gene Ha's art is unreal in this book!  It's hyper-detailed particularly the backgrounds and he adds a huge amount of 'easter egg' (the term for hidden bonus features on a DVD) cameos of fictional pop culture characters from the time period ('50s & '60s).  I remember seeing Popeye, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Porky Pig, and a slew of others.

The art is positively dense with all the detail and makes for fun multiple readings.  I have to recommend the Absolute Edition with it's over-sized pages as the perfect format for reading this story.  Art Lyon's colors were a revelation when combined with Ha's art.  I was totally blown away.  Complete and utterly perfect synergy between the two artists.  Combined with Moore's storytelling I see how this book won the Eisner Award in 2006 for Best Graphic Album: New.

The story is definitely for mature readers and not kid stuff.  If you've read the original series then you know Steve Traynor, aka Jetman, is gay.  This prequel not only explains how Neopolis got its start, but also gives us the coming-of-age story of Jetlad.  Readers may be sensitive to the subject matter depending on their views.  I found it to be an interesting and refreshing portrayal of "superheroes".  You don't see many mainstream comics stories deal with this subject.
Full wraparound cover image for the hard and softcover editions
I can't recommend this book and the Top 10 series enough - positively one of my favorite reads of the last decade.  Alan Moore left the series after this graphic novel (and the Smax spinoff mini-series), but two more mini-series were published.  Ha returned to pencil the Second Season, but the series was very short.  I'm planning to review those in the near future - stay tuned!  In the meantime pick up the Absolute Edition and enjoy the ride.  It's undeniable to say Moore and Ha hit a grand slam together with this series.

TO BUY and Recommendations: