Sunday, May 22, 2011

TWT Checks Out Taskmaster: Unthinkable

I know I promised a review of John Byrne’s She-Hulk collected in trade, but I’ve been sidetracked by something else, so she’s going to have to wait a post or two. Sorry, Shulkie!

The story of how I came to buy and read Marvel’s Taskmaster: Unthinkable in trade is a funny one. Readers who know me from my other blogging gig at Action Figure Blues will know that I’m quite a fan of Bowen Designs’ Marvel Statue line. Randy Bowen recently released some initial designs for a Taskmaster Statue which looks completely stunning, and it sparked my interest in the character. When I saw Taskmaster: Unthinkable available at the Book Depository, I decided to pick it up and have a look. I’m very glad I did!

Taskmaster was introduced in Avengers #195 back in 1980, and since then has played various roles in the Marvel Universe. His power is “photographic reflexes”, the ability to mimic any skill or action after observing it once. He can draw upon the physical skills of anyone he’s fought or seen fighting, and can develop other skills from one observation, such as learning to land an airplane by watching a video of someone else doing it, as he accomplishes in this story. Pretty handy ability!

From various acts of general villainy, Taskmaster moved on to be a trainer for hire for both bad and good guys, a love / hate relationship with Deadpool, and most recently, a significant role in the Avengers: Initiative series as an instructor. Obviously he’d gained enough traction as a character to be allocated his own mini-series, and the character has well and truly been done justice in this four issue collection written by Fred Van Lente and drawn by Jefte Palo.

The basic plot of the story is this: Taskmaster is falsely accused of leaking information about the underworld to Steve Rogers and the “good” guys, and as a result a giant bounty is placed on his head by The Org, a mysterious criminal organisation that has been directing Taskmaster’s work. This leads pretty much every bad guy organisation in the Marvel Universe to take up the challenge of capturing Taskmaster’s scalp, and soon he has the likes of AIM, HYDRA, the Secret Empire, ULTIMATUM, the Cyber Ninjas, the Legions of the Living Lightning and several others, including some Van Lente created for this series, doing their best to take him out.

At the same time, we learn that Taskmaster’s massive store of skills has “deleted” his personal memory (read the book for a more complicated explanation), and in fact he no longer knows who he is and doesn’t retain memories of people or places from one task to the next. He goes back to a special point to try to regain his memory, which he describes as a “room” in his “memory palace”, the Ambrosia Diner, and when the hordes attack to try to collect the bounty on his head, the waitress he’d been exchanging some banter with, Mercedes Merced, becomes embroiled in his troubles and ends up along for the ride when The Org adds her to the bounty.

Without giving away the major twists of the story, what follows is the revelation of Taskmaster’s true origin, which seems to render his original origin as told way back in Avengers #196 null and void. I don’t see this as a major issue, as his original telling of his story could be seen as a way of obscuring his true identity - and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a villain has lied about his or her origin. Using a B-list villain like Taskmaster as a central character gives the writer some room to move, as his origin hasn’t been retold over and over. What Van Lente has come up with for his Taskmaster is extremely clever and creates captivating tale.

Van Lente’s writing is extremely solid throughout this book, and in my opinion the humorous edge he brings to the story is what really makes it. The funniest part of the tale is the revelation of the identity of the villain behind the plot against Taskmaster: it’s Redshirt, The Uber-Henchman, who has drawn together the lackeys of A.I.M., HYDRA and the rest of Marvel’s seemingly endless string of super-criminal organisations into an organisation he’s dubbed the Minion’s International Liberation Front to rise up against their leaders and take control of The Org. That’s right, the M.I.L.F. There are quite a few funny segments in the story (“Don of the Dead” is classic!), but Redshirt takes the cake - and yes, the origins of the term “redshirt” do get a nod.

Jefte Palo's style wouldn't suit every book, but it works well here. It's a sketchy style, but he still manages to convey emotion and detail when needed. I don't know that I'd want him to take over any of my favourite ongoing series, but his work here is quite effective.

While some may consider this story a retcon of Taskmaster, the end result for this reader is that it makes the character a much more rounded and accessible member of the Marvel Universe. I’d love to see Van Lente carry on with Taskmaster, as this mini-series has created a world for him and laid the ground work for many more interesting stories.

Prior to this I’d only read Van Lente’s writing in his collaborations with Greg Pak, so it was nice to hear his “voice” on its own. I’ll definitely be looking up more of his work, and I’m very psyched for Pak and Van Lente’s take on my dear old Alpha Flight!

Taskmaster: Unthinkable definitely gets two TWT thumbs up! If you think you’d like to read it, click here to buy it at Amazon and support Trade Waiting Tales!

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Happy reading!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

TWT Checks Out The Boys: Highland Laddie

Garth Ennis’ series The Boys has been one of my favourite series since I discovered the early trades of the comic a couple of years ago. I pretty much devoured the first five or so volumes of this series, which so cleverly turns the table on the mainstream superhero genre. Tonight I’m looking at the latest collection of the series in Trade Paperback, The Boys: Highland Laddie”.

While this has been put out as Volume 8 of the series, Highland Laddie was actually a six issue mini-series, much the same as Herogasm, which was issued as a Volume 5 of the series. While it stands apart from the main series in one respect, I’d still suggest that it’s required reading if you’re a fan of the series.

Anyone who knows The Boys won’t be surprised to know that Highland Laddie focuses on Wee Hughie, the Scotsman who has been the lens through which we have come to understand the world of The Boys. In the preceding issues of the main series, we’ve seen the origin stories of three other members of the “team”; Mother’s Milk (aka “MM”), The Frenchman and The Female. In this mini-series, it’s Hughie’s turn.

Having come to a crossroads in his desire to be a part of The Boys’ world, Hughie returns to his native Scotland for some thinking time, and we learn about his background and upbringing as a result. We meet his “Maw” and “Paw” and learn that he is adopted. We meet his two oddball friends from his youth, (Rich Johnston from Bleeding Cool has a great article about how Hughies’ family and friends are a homage to a 1930’s comic strip) and come to some understandings of what made Hughie the person that we met back in The Boys #1. It’s totally consistent with anything we may have known or thought about him, but adds a great deal of texture and understanding to his character and story.

As it turns out, this mini isn’t just a vehicle for Hughie - it’s also Starlight’s origin story. We’ve seen Annie January’s evolution from young innocent to the conflicted and somewhat cynical person she is in the stories today. When she comes to Scotland to try to patch things together with Hughie, we learn how she came into her powers and her “career” as a Vought American superhero. Ennis takes a stab at the fad of children’s beauty pageants by showing a Compound V infused iteration, which is the main section of this story that “feels” most like a classic Boys tale. It’s well done, and makes its point without unnecessary gore. This little flashback also gives us an insight into how Vought grooms its employees from an early age, and stage manages so much of what they do.

Alongside these “origin” stories, there is a storyline that is told and resolved within the mini-series which is a good read in itself. It seems unrelated to the world of The Boys at first, but by the end it has linked in, and explains a bit more of just how much the impacts of Compound V have bled in to normal society.

I have to admit that prior to reading this volume, I was coming to a bit of a crossroads with this series. I loved the initial story arcs, but the book seemed to have fallen into a predictable pattern: we meet new “heroes”, discover their particular form of debauchery, and then see them dispatched in some horrible manner. Fun, but for this reader at least there needs to be a little bit of soul to justify my gore and violence. It might just be mind tricks to justify guilty pleasures, but that’s the way I tick.

Highland Laddie is a welcome reprieve from that routine. Its focus is on helping us know Hughie and Annie better, and without spoiling anything, there’s no terrible sinister undertone to any of the characters we’re introduced to from Hughie’s upbringing. There is a refreshing normality of dysfunctional yet loving family relationships that comes through in this story which reinforces the points of difference between Hughie and the other members of The Boys, and I expect that the realisations that Hughie comes to within himself in this arc will have some flow-on effect to how he functions in the main book.

The verdict? If you read The Boys solely for the gore, sex and violence, Highland Laddie might disappoint, as they’re all in short supply here. If you character development is important to you, then Highland Laddie is essential reading, as it will not only add depth to your understanding of some of the main characters of the series, but is also sure to have some reverberations in the main series of The Boys. Definitely two TWT thumbs up!

What now? If you’d like to check out The Boys: Highland Laddie, click here to buy it from Amazon.com and support Trade Waiting Tales!

Next up: a blast from the past of the female, green, John Byrne variety: Sensational She-Hulk, Volume One. Should be fun!

If you'd like to keep up with Trade Waiting Tales, you can sign up for the TWT Twitter feed and “like” the TWT Facebook Page.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

TWT checks out Time Masters: Vanishing Point

I have already written about my general disdain for today’s comic “events”, which is primarily derived from the sense that not many of the ‘changes’ that we are tantalised with in the promotion of these things actually lasts very long or makes much of a difference. That doesn’t mean however, that some of these stories can’t be enjoyed in trade form when read as stand-alone stories. That’s the case, more or less, with the trade I am reviewing tonight, which collects the Time Masters: Vanishing Point mini-series from DC Comics.

Infinite Crisis was a dog’s breakfast of a crossover event in some respects, but it has given us a few lasting things - the beginnings of what became the new Secret Six, a new Shadowpact (the loss of which I still mourn), visual images of Superboy Prime punching a lot of people to death and, out of very sad circumstances, a reinvigorated and re-purposed Booster Gold.

Geoff Johns may have authored the demise of Booster’s best buddy Ted Kord / Blue Beetle II, but he also got Booster’s post-52 solo book off to a great start, and gave the hero from the future a new purpose in the DCU as a policeman of time and protector of important events, and a limitation of never being able to reveal his vital role of keeping the fabric of the universe together, but instead having to maintain the guise of a publicity hound only out for his own gain. He also gave Booster a new nemesis in the form of the Black Beetle, a character shrouded in mystery. Johns  finished up his run on the book with a bang by revealing in his final issue that Booster would in fact become the father of his compatriot Rip Hunter. A cunning twist, and one that works and has added an interesting depth to Booster’s ongoing series.

Older Booster teaches a young Rip about things
an older Rip will teach a young Booster. Really.
The “mission” that Booster and Rip share embroils them in the search for Bruce Wayne and entangles them with Superman and Green Lantern and that is part of the basis for Time Masters. There is a second plot which revolves around Black Beetle and his “Time Stealers”: Per Degaton, Despero and Ultra-Humanite, on a suitably despicable mission. These two stories don’t really relate, and yet it all does manage to work together as a fairly cohesive whole.

While this story is packaged to look like the search for Batman is at the core of the book, in fact the most rewarding elements for this reader are the scenes with an older Booster and his young son Rip that begin each issue of the miniseries. This gives us our first real glimpse of the father / son relationship and fleshes out the reasons behind Rip’s mentoring of the younger version of his father. It also keeps us in the dark about who Booster’s future wife is, while showing us that she’s very much a part of their mission in time.

There is an interesting nugget here for Rip Hunter fans here, and that is a reference back to some of Jurgens’ own work as the creator of Hunter’s one time companions, The Linear Men. It was mentioned very early in the current run of Booster Gold that Hunter had locked the Linear Men away, but the reasons were never clear. In this series, we see the surviving team members - Matthew Ryder and Liri Lee, and learn that Rip fell out with the team due to differences of opinion about how time should or shouldn’t be interfered with. Eventually Rip had felt that he had to stop his former allies from meddling in matters of time, and imprisoned them. Now, Ryder and Lee are manipulated by the Black Beetle and his allies into helping locate the corpse of former teammate Waverider (who was actually an alternate world Matthew Ryder) so that Black Beetle can take Waverider’s remaining essence and use it to enhance his powers.

Black Beetle (yes, the guy in the red) wants Waverider's
corpse - but will the Linear Men let him have it?
While the Black Beetle / Waverider plot is an enjoyable read, the “Search for Bruce Wayne” side of the plotline has a few issues. Part of this is due to the way that Jurgens uses Superman and Green Lantern. Their presence in the book seems to have been more about boosting sales by having them on the cover than making any meaningful contribution to the story. They are present on the adventures throughout the issues, but aren’t well written or given anything terribly meaningful to do. Superman spends way too much time talking about himself (“Anyone who knows me know that I would never...”) and Green Lantern takes a high and mighty attitude towards Booster that is pretty uncharacteristic for Hal Jordan. While Jurgens wants us to understand that these heroes don’t really respect Booster, I think he goes too far in trying to reinforce that point by having them treat him in a way that Superman in particular probably wouldn’t treat anyone. This is particularly odd considering that Jurgens is very experienced at writing Kal-el. The end result is that these two heroes end up being two-dimensional props in a story in which they could have played a more meaningful role. The end result for me personally was that these sections of the story felt more like something I had to wade through to get to the much more interesting Booster / Young Rip and Time Stealers / Linear Men Sequences. One definitely gets the sense that these aspects of the story is where Jurgens’ heart is as well.

The premise of Booster and Rip’s mission allows writers to draw characters or plots from any era of the DCU, and Jurgens makes the most of it here, There is a great deal packed in to this book, including enjoyable sequences with Claw the Unconquered, the original female Starfire, Supernova and the Reverse Flash. Claw and Starfire are both well written and well drawn, and it’s great to see them in the DCU again. Zoom’s role in the story isn’t huge, but he’s also used and characterised effectively.

Gee, Hal. Sanctimonious much??
In the end, this is undoubtedly a Booster Gold / Rip Hunter tale, and this miniseries actually adds a great deal to their story. I am a big fan of Dan Jurgens’ art, and having him on art duties brings a familiarity and consistency to the book for Booster Gold readers.
While this story certainly adds some depth and texture to The Return of Bruce Wayne, it’s by no means required reading for Batman fans. For Booster Gold fans I’d say this is pretty much a must. It adds to the Booster / Rip story, to the development of Black Beetle, and the way in which the Waverider aspect of the story is resolved seems likely to have repercussions back in Booster’s solo book. I’d also recommend it for people wanting a taste of what makes Booster’s solo series work. If you don’t like time travel / continuity / time paradox stories, stay right away. This is not for you!

Next review I’ll be straying away from the Big Two and heading over to Dynamite Entertainment Territory by reviewing Volume 8 of The Boys: Highland Laddie. Should be fun!

If you like the sound of Time Masters: Vanishing Point, click here to order it at Amazon.com and support Trade Waiting Tales!

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Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

TWT Checks out Marvel's Chaos War

Tonight I’m looking at a trade that is based around an “event”, as the comic folk like to call them. A Marvel or DC “event” is hardly noteworthy these days, as they seem to be the lifeblood of mainstream comics. Spin the wheel to choose your bad guy, roll the dice to select which characters will die and which will be resurrected, throw in a few “this is the one that changes everythings!” and “....will never be the same agains!” and you have your average comic event of the modern era.

One of the things that spurned me to start my trade waiting approach to comic collecting was sorting through a couple of years’ worth of single issues for bagging and boarding and realising how much money I had spent on miniseries and event tie-ins which had very quickly been made irrelevant by the next crossover or event. With the rate at which the Big Two churn these out, and the copious one-shots and minis that tend to go along with them these days, they can take up a fair chunk of change! There are also often so many different stories happening at one time that the “event” as a whole doesn’t hang together as a cohesive story - for example, that’s how Batman ends up dying in two different ways in Final Crisis. It can get pretty confusing!


I decided then that “events” were definitely to be trade-waited, as the passing of time gave me an opportunity to see whether or not the story was still worth reading - if the “amazing repercussions” of an event have been undone by the time the trade comes out, it’s an easy pass. It also allows me to read the main story of an event as a (hopefully) cohesive whole, and then branch out to any of the other stories tied to it if it seems worth it.

The event in question this evening is Marvel’s Chaos War, and this particular story is definitely an example where this method pays dividends. I’m leaving aside all of the tie-ins etc in this review and just looking at the collection of the five-issue main Chaos War book, written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente with art by Khoi Pham and Tom Palmer.

As I mentioned, there were a number of different things in play during this crossover, with Avengers and X-Men mini-series, Hulk tie-in issues and a number of one shots, including Alpha Flight and Thor issues. I haven’t read any of these yet, but plan to pick up the Avengers and X-Men trades shortly.

Looking at all of the different titles and tie-ins at the time, you’d be hard pressed to deduce that at its heart, Chaos War is actually a Hercules story. In case you missed it, Hercules isn’t dead anymore, courtesy of the Prince of Power miniseries and his young friend Amadeus Cho. Hercules hasn’t just returned to status quo, however - he’s more powerful than he’s ever been with a new set of powers in the wake of the death of Zeus and other members of the pantheon.

The “big bad” here is  the Chaos King, also known as the evil Japanese god Amastu-Mikaboshi, who has decided things were better before there was anything, and has decided to wipe everything out. As you do. He starts by invading the underworld, and as a result the dead start reappearing on Earth. As they do. Cue the various mini-series of returned dead heroes, some of whom have been very busy, since they were just back from the dead in Necrosha. There really is no rest for the wicked!


To combat this cosmic craziness, Hercules puts together a new “God Squad”, consisting of Daimon Hellstrom, Sersi, Venus, Thor, The Panther God, The Silver Surfer, and... wait for it... Galactus. This is a very enjoyable combination which provides a core group for the story to built around. Thor and Hercules together generally make for a good story, and any appearance by ex-Defender Hellstrom and former Avenger Sersi is very welcome in my book.

I’m quite a fan of Silver Surfer, and he’s given a fair bit to do in this story. It makes sense that Galactus would get involved in anything universe-ending, and the Surfer always works best when the reasons for his appearance are less contrived. I enjoy reading gatherings of the gods and gods-ish of the Marvel Universe, who have their own corner of Marveldom in the same way that Abnett and Lanning’s cosmic characters of the Annihilators variety do, and the Surfer provides a nice link between the two.

Pak and Van Lente know Hercules well and clearly have a love for the character, and it’s pleasing to see that in the midst of all of this cosmic-level heaviness they still manage to retain Herc’s sense of humour in little moments. Hercules may be souped up in the power department and literally has the fate of the universe on his shoulders, but at heart he’s still our Herc, a bit dim-witted and loutish, but saving the day none the less.

Another thing that Pak and Lente accomplish through Chaos War to good efefct is to provide some closure to fans of the partnership between Hercules and his young friend Amadeus Cho. Their run together in Incredible Hercules, which took over Incredible Hulk for quite a length tenure in a rather bizarre bit of comic book re-titling, was an extremely enjoyable thing to read. In the same way that Amadeus provided us with a human (albeit a genius level human) insight into the Prince of Power’s adventures in that book, it is often through Amadeus’ eyes that we are able to understand what’s happening at a level that related to us mere mortals. There is also resolution to goddess Athena’s story which brings stories from Incredible Hercules and Prince of Power to a resolution.


The art from Khoi Pham for this series garnered mixed reviews. I don’t know that I’d want Pham to be the regular artist on any of my favourite books, but I found his work servicable, if not inspiring, here. There are some pretty cool scenes at the end of this saga where Herc shares his abundance of god-powers with a throng of Marvel heroes, and Pham handles this quite well, giving the viewer a sense of how universe-spanning the saga is by adding dozens of characters in the background. Some are very sketchily portrayed, but you know they’re there. Palmer works well with what his given and the colours on the book are quite well done.

The wrap up of the series comes with a surprising turn of events - Hercules saves the day by expending all of his god-ness, and ends the story as a mere mortal. Pak and Lente will be writing a new ongoing called Herc which will cast the former Prince of Power as a mortal in New York fighting with some mythical armor. It’s being billed as a “great jumping on point” for new readers with an all-new supporting cast, so even though its’ in Pak and Lente’s hands, one has to wonder if it will have enough of the elements we’ve loved about Hercules to be an enjoyable story. It seems an odd counterpoint to the heights Hercules was taken to in the saga reviewed here today, but only time will tell, and at any rate it will be a fair bit of time before we trade waiters get to be the judge of that!


Despite these misgivings about Hercules’ future, it was nice to discover that the core Chaos War book actually has merit as an enjoyable story when it stands alone from all else that was attached to it. It’s unlikely to have any lasting consequence in the continuity of the Marvel Universe, but when viewed as a sweeping Hercules tale it does have a great deal of merit, and when purchased in this form apart from all that was related to it at the time it can be enjoyed as such. Therefore I’d recommend the trade as a must read for Hercules and Amadeus Cho, and an enjoyable read for fans of the Silver Surfer, The Elementals or Marvel’s take on the Greek Pantheon. If none of these things float your boat, it’s an easy pass as a purchase, but an okay read if you can borrow a copy.

I may come back at some point with a review of some of the tie-in books, particularly the Dead Avengers and X-Men minis, as I do like stories of resurrected heroes. Next up, however, I’ll be going back to the DC side of things by reviewing another miniseries collected in trade form, Time Masters: Vanishing Point, starring Booster Gold, Rip Hunter and others. Bring your own chronal energy beams!

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Happy reading!