Thursday, June 23, 2011

TWT Checks out Van Lente and Pak's new Alpha Flight!

Phil Jiminez is providing stunning covers for the series
While I work on finishing the next trade I’ll be reviewing, I thought I’d share some thoughts on one of the few monthly comics I’m currently picking up - Marvel’s new take on ALPHA FLIGHT.
I bought and read John Byrne’s original run on ALPHA FLIGHT back when it was first published, and have always had a very soft spot in my heart for these characters. As brilliant as Byrne was, I have always thought he did the book a bit of disservice by dismantling the team too quickly through various deaths, departures and changes. I was happy to see that CHAOS WAR: ALPHA FLIGHT #1 (one-shot) was revisiting the original team, many of whom were long dead, and was surprised by the fact that it ended with the resurrected characters returning to the land of the living. It also left them in a bit of limbo until Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak were announced as writing a new series for the team.
The returned team laps up the Canadian limelight - while it lasts.

Right up front, let me say that if you haven’t picked up Issues #0.1 and #1, you need to buy them now! This book should be very enjoyable to readers new to Alpha Flight, but will also be quite rewarding to avid fans. Van Lente and Pak have accomplished a great “jumping on point” without alienating those who know the characters well - quite a feat!

When Issue #0.1 opens, we’ve jumped forward from the end of Chaos War to a time when the team has been reestablished within Department H and the characters have started to reestablish their lives. I think starting with action instead of protracted exposition was a great move. It keeps the pace brisk from the beginning. We aren’t left confused as we do get glimpses of what the characters are up to in their own lives as the action progresses. There is a great deal packed in to the first two issues, and it’s a nice balance of action and character.  I liked the fact that they felt like decent reads instead of something you flicked through too quickly. It’s well written stuff.

The approaches to the characters are very faithful, but with some new dimensions. I especially like Van Lente and Pak's take on Marrina. She's been through a great deal in her life, so while her more agressive personality is new, it's also an understandable evolution of the character. Gone is the demure and naive junior member of the team, and in her place is a strong, aggressive and sometimes volatile young woman. She’s also had a redesign which looks fantastic. The “new” Marrina is certainly not going to be a wallflower on this team - in fact she may well be the breakout star! I do hope that we see her connections with Namor addressed at some point - after all, the last time they met, he was forced to kill her.....
Van Lente and Pak's take on Marrina is a highlight of the series so far. 
The one thing that has made me sigh a little so far is an very early reference to Aurora's mental stability. It's an important part of Jeanne-Marie's character, but it's been SO done. I hope we get to see her do some different things in this new series.

The fate of one of the team’s most popular characters, Eugene “Puck” Judd, remains unknown at present, but I have no doubt this will be explored shortly. Van Lente has also hinted on Twitter that Shaman’s daughter, Elizabeth “Talisman” Twoyoungmen, will also be seen. I’m very excited about that, as Talisman was always a favourite of mine.

Ben Oliver provided the pencils for #0.1, while Dale Eaglesham is on interior art duties for the limited series with Phil Jiminez on covers. I’m a fan of both artists, so that’s a win / win. I do find Eaglesham’s facial expression and conveyance of emotion a bit lacking at times, and would love to see this improve. Jiminez seems to be channeling Byrne on his covers, which are stunningly beautiful.
Northstar and Aurora revisit some familiar territory.
I won’t go into further detail now as I’m sure I’ll end up reviewing this when it’s collected. At present, this series is limited to eight issues. I sincerely hope it gets the reception it deserves and becomes an ongoing. If you agree, please spread the word by linking this review around the interwebs!

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Happy reading!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

TWT Checks out Kirkman's The Astounding Wolf-Man

I’m a big fan of Robert Kirkman. His work on The Walking Dead and Invincible is sure to be some of the most memorable of the current comics era. As such, I’m always happy to try any book he writes. For some reason, I’d never gotten around to reading The Astounding Wolf-Man, an Image Comics series which ended its 25 issue run last year, so I decided to pick up the first trade of the series and give it a whirl.

The basic story of Astounding Wolf-Man is this: Gary Hampton is a CEO and family man whose life is changed forever when he is attacked by a wolf on a family holiday. Lo and behold, the wolf was actually a werewolf, and Gary is transformed. Once he works out what he is, and realises he has great power, he decides to try to use it for good under the guidance of a seemingly friendly vampire named Zechariah. Meanwhile, his family struggle to come to terms with what he’s become, which is made harder when their lives are thrown into chaos by Gary being thrown out of his own company.

Bummer of a holiday, Gary!

If that sounds like a rather traditional set-up, it is. In fact, the first issue and a bit had me wondering whether or not Kirkman’s trademark plot twists were ever going to appear in the series, or if Astounding Wolf-Man was just an attempt a straightforward superhero fare. While the first of the kind of twists I’ve come to expect from Kirkman takes a little bit longer than I would have liked to appear, when it does you realise that you’re holding a great story in your hands. Without spoiling anything for those who might decide to pick this up, Gary discovers something unexpected about his transformation a bit later in the piece, and it has some rather major consequences that reverberate throughout the rest of the story. It’s this event that makes it clear that this is the kind of story where anything can happen and nothing should be taken for granted.

One thing that Kirkman does consistently well is to weave action with the personal challenges of his characters. There are big adjustments for Gary and his family to make, and the story throws more at them as it progresses. Gary’s relationship with his wife, Rebecca, is tested, and his daughter, Chloe, reacts in a very typical teenage fashion to the changes in her life and family circumstances. There’s a bit of an Animal Man quality to Gary’s life and story, the balancing of heroing with normal life, albeit with some Kirkman twists.

Wolf-Man uses Invincible's Tailor!

Kirkman quickly builds a world around Wolf-Man. His relationship with Zechariah has a quieter, personal element to it as well as a mentor / trainee relationship, and it is often strained by Gary learning things that Zechariah has been holding back with him. We aren’t meant to know whether or not Zechariah is actually trustworthy or not, and I expect that thread will continue to be developed throughout the series. We meet other heroes as well in the form of a team called The Actioneers, who become entangled with Wolf-Man’s story on a few levels. My favourite team member, Mecha-Maid, is a robot who seems to have a secret identity as a human mother and child. I hope we see more of this to fully understand.

Another Kirkman trademark apparent here is his use of wacky villains that often pop-up suddenly with no back story. There are a few here that remind me very much of similar riffs from Invincible, but the reactions and outcomes are quite different in this series. Kirkman is very skilled at weaving these seemingly throw-away characters into his story in meaningful ways, and I have no doubt we’ll see some, if not all, of the villains introduced here further down the road.

Domestic issues have a different dimension when werewolves are involved

The art for this series is provided by Jason Howard, a relative newcomer who drew the entire Astounding Wolf-Man series is and now working on the very fun Super Dinosaur with Kirkman. He has a style that works very well with Kirkman’s stories. His design for Wolf-Man is fabulous, and as Kirkman notes in opening notes of the trade, he draws fur very well. He also has a great deal of fun with all the various supporting characters Kirkman throws into the mix. His style is somewhat animated in its feel - in fact if you sampled random panels you might think you were reading Invincible, but the overall tone of the book is much darker, befitting of a story starring a werewolf and a vampire. Howard is on full art duties here as penciller, inker and colorist, and he fulfills all of these roles very ably, bringing a consistent style and look to the book.

Can Vampire Zechariah really be trusted?

While there’s a lot of positives to say about the art, it also provides the only shortcoming of the book in my view. Howard’s human characters don’t display a great deal of emotion, and that’s a challenge in a book that contains a fair bit of interpersonal drama. Howard’s style in drawing Gary (in his non-wolf state) and his family is rather reminiscent of the Sally Forth comic strip, and this makes them a tad difficult to engage with as people. We see enough of Gary in different circumstances to come to care about him as our protagonist, but I can’t say that I particularly understood or cared about Rebecca or Chloe by the end of the volume, and it seemed to me it was mainly due to a lack of emotional depth in the way they were drawn. Some of the scenes in the story, particularly between Gary and Rebecca, are fairly subtle in terms of the emotions Kirkman implies in the writing, but the art doesn’t always back this up to enable the story to pack the intended punch. It’s not a fatal flaw, but a bit of a drawback. Ryan Ottley has certainly proven on Invincible that one can convey a great deal of pathos through a somewhat cartoonish style, so it certainly can be done and done well.

Despite that particular criticism, this is still vintage Kirkman, and in his own inimitable style the volume ends by turning everything in its head, leaving you with no idea as to where the story is going to go from there. One of the things I love about indie comics is their willingness to muck with the status quo and expect their readers to come along for the ride. It’s the kind of risk-taking that mainstream comics don’t engage enough in, and they are the poorer for it. Sure, it can be jarring to see major characters suddenly dispatched or changed fundamentally by certain events, but ultimately the stories are much more rewarding when you know that someone isn’t gong to come along and press the “reset” button - it makes it much more meaningful.

The Actioneers in Action - Mecha-Maid is my favourite - she's the robot with the mop for hair

The wrap-up: while I can’t imagine The Astounding Wolf-Man becoming my favourite Robert Kirkman series, it’s definitely worth reading and owning. Jason Howard certainly has fantastic skills as an artist, but I’m hoping to see his emotional range grow as the series progresses. A slowish starting but very solid first volume that definitely has me wanting to read more.

What next? If you want to read The Astounding Wolf-Man, Volume One, buy it at Amazon and support TWT!

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Happy reading!