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The X-Files (Topps) #30-31 – Surrounded (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Surrounded marks the beginning of the end for Topps’ licensed X-Files tie-in comic book. There are only twelve issues remaining before Ten Thirteen would decided not to renew the contact, making this the last year for the comic. Of course, Topps would rather relentlessly milk the comic for whatever it was worth over the next year, publishing both a range of Season One adaptations and an adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s Ground Zero novel. They would also finally get around to releasing Stefan Petrucha and Jill Thompson’s AfterFlight graphic novel.

So there is a lot of content coming in the final year of Topps’ hold on that license. The X-Files was clearly a massive success for the newly-minted comic book wing of the company. Indeed, The X-Files was the last comic standing for Topps, and there is ample evidence that Topps was hoping to continue the line beyond The X-Files: Fight the Future, with several Season One adaptations solicited, but never published. Much like for the show itself, this was a boom time for Topps.

What's eating you?

What’s eating you?

However, the final year of the comic ultimately feels rather safe and generic. John Rozum is a competent comic writer; he understands the medium, and he knows how to play with other peoples’ toys. However, there is a sense that the comic book is really just marking time. There is very little that stands out about this last stretch of the comic; nothing which really demands to be read or to be added to the great X-Files canon. It is not bad, by any measure; it is just there.

Surrounded is a prime example of the comic book marking time. It feels like a retread of familiar ground – both for the comic book and for the parent show. When Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard set stories like Silent Cities of the Mind or Home of the Brave in militia compounds, they were very much ahead of the television. By the time that Surrounded was published at the end of the fourth season, the show itself had already told stories about this world in episodes like The Field Where I Died, Tunguska, Terma and Unrequited.

Shining some light on the matter...

Shining some light on the matter…

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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: The Juggernaut – Something Can Stop the Juggernaut (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Something Can Stop the Juggernaut is a bit of an oddity in the grand scheme of The Gauntlet, if not the larger scheme of Brand New Day. One of the stated goals of Brand New Day was to present readers with a thoroughly modernised version of Spider-Man, an iteration of the character who had been distilled to his purest essence, unburdened by the weight of decades of character development and continuity.

As the “new” in Brand New Day suggests, a large part of the editorial stance on Brand New Day was the opportunity to do something novel with The Amazing Spider-Man. It was a conscious break with the old, and an attempt to push the character in new directions. After all, the early issues made an effort to shuffle new characters into the established ensemble and to feature new villains and threats for our hero to face.

Leaping into action...

Leaping into action…

(To the point where the emphasis on classic foes was one of the selling points of The Gauntlet – a sense that the comics were finally trying to bring many of these iconic baddies into the twenty-first century alongside a reinvigorated and re-energised Spider-Man. Indeed, it’s interesting how much of The Gauntlet makes a point to reference or mirror Peter’s continuity reset into Brand New Day. Much like Peter in One More Day, many of his classic foes lose their new-found families to reset them to villainy, except without the benefit of a magical reset button at the end.)

So drawing back in celebrated creator Roger Stern to craft a sequel to a beloved eighties Amazing Spider-Man story feels rather surreal. The three-part Something Can Stop the Juggernaut exists as an explicit to Stern’s deservedly beloved classic Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut, right down to classic flashbacks to the comic, follow-up references to various characters, and the fact that events spiral from that story.

Spidey is a little tied up...

Spidey is a little tied up…

Something Can Stop the Juggernaut is crafted as a celebration of vintage Spider-Man, which works very well in the context of The Gauntlet. As the on-going epic spirals towards its climax in Shed and Grim Hunt, it’s nice to hace a reminder of a classic Spider-Man story. After all, Grim Hunt makes a point to stress the perfection of another classic Spider-Man story, albeit in a very different way.

Something Can Stop the Juggernaut seems to exists to assure readers that the legacy and history of Spider-Man is still valid and meaningful, not rendered moot by the continuity-tinkering shennanigans of One More Day.

The Juggernaut who fell to Earth...

The Juggernaut who fell to Earth…

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Non-Review Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a delightfully pulpy adventure. In many respects, it feels like the movie that Captain America: The First Avenger really should have been, a celebration of its lead character’s versatility and a demonstration of how easily the comic book character can cross genres. Part of the beauty of The Winter Soldier is in the way that it feints. It weaves in directions that are a little surprising at times, and even avoids taking the path of least resistance when offered.

With an opening act that teases the age old debate about liberty and security (“this isn’t freedom,” Steve Rogers solemnly states, “this is fear”), the movie deftly steps sideways to avoid getting too bogged down in familiar political discourse. Much like Iron Man 3, there’s a charm in how The Winter Soldier evades any particularly probing political commentary, cleverly swerving out of the way of anything that could become ham-fisted or heavy-handed.

The Captain and the Widow...

The Captain and the Widow…

It tricks the audience into expecting a contemporary political thriller, only to become something a bit more unexpected – a strange hybrid of pulpy science-fiction, conspiratorial secret history and even seventies espionage thriller. It’s an exciting and engaging blend, one that never outstays its welcome. The only real problem is that it tries to do a bit too much and some of the smaller pieces get lost in the shuffle – which means the climax doesn’t resonate as well as it needs to.

Still, those are ultimately minor problems with a superior blockbuster.

Body of evidence...

Body of evidence…

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Fear Itself (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Part of what is so remarkable about Fear Itself is how uncomfortably it fits into the “huge event” role that Marvel cast for it. Matt Fraction’s seven-issues-and-change epic crossover event is really just a Thor story arc that dips its toe in the waters of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. Instead, Marvel cast it as this gigantic universe-altering mega-important miniseries with over 100 crossovers and tie-ins from all corners of the Marvel Universe.

Positioned to capitalise on the release of both Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Joe Johnson’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Fear Itself seems like a story told in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Brian Bendis’ Secret Invasion would undoubtedly have worked better as an arc of New Avengers than as a full-blown “nothing is ever the same again” epic, Fear Itself would have been a much stronger comic had it been allowed to play out on a smaller stage.

Hammer time!

Hammer time!

Still, despite the problems inherent in large-scale epic crossovers, Fear Itself works surprisingly well. Indeed, it it probably the strongest Marvel “mega-event” of the past decade if only because it is built on a strong ideological premise and develops some of the underlying themes and ideas of Fraction’s other Marvel work. Treated as a seven-issue story arc from Matt Fraction’s The Mighty Thor, it’s a fascinating climax of ideas that bubble away in the background of his run.

The choice to let Fraction craft Fear Itself, with assists from Ed Brubaker on the prologue and epilogue to the event, is inspired. Fraction is not the most consistent of comic book writers, but he is also incredibly wry and self-aware. There’s a sense of charming self-deprecating to Fear Itself, as Fraction allows the characters involved to reflect on the absurdity of it all without ever losing track of their humanity. Fear Itself might be far from perfect, but it is clever, fun and thoughtful. And those are endearing virtues.

Suit up!

Suit up!

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Superman: The Animated Series – Ghost in the Machine (Review)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Ah, Lex Luthor. Luthor is, in the right hands, an absolutely fascinating character. The arrogant, ruthless, egocentric hero of his own story – the man who resents the world for not acknowledging his genius are recognising his boundless compassion. He’s a crusader against the alien threat that has lulled his city into a false sense of security, and he’s willing to make untold sacrifices in order to expose Superman as the menace that Luthor knows deep down that he is.

Well, not really. Luthor is a greedy and manipulative sociopath with delusions of grandeur and a ruthless streak a mile wide. However, there’s something quite intoxicating about the romantic mythology he’s created from himself. Ghost in the Machine is really the first time we’ve focused on a character taken in by that mythology, somebody won over by Luthor’s propaganda and his alpha male charisma.

Mercy Graves was never the break-out character that Harley Quinn was, but she’s another valuable addition to the DC universe made by Bruce Timm and the rest of DC animation. Ghost in the Machine is as much her story as Superman’s or Brainiac’s, as she finds herself caught in the middle.

Another day in the body shop...

Another day in the body shop…

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Superman: The Action Comics Archives, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

It’s interesting to look back that the early Superman stories in Action Comics. Given that Superman has picked up a reputation for being boring or predictable or safe or conservative, it’s amazing just how radical and inflammatory some of these very early Siegel and Shuster adventures are. These early Action Comics strips were undeniably and overtly political, presenting a strong-willed and proactive version of Superman completely unafraid to impose his will on the citizens of the world.

It’s a dramatically different take on the character than the version we’ve come to accept in popular culture, the benign and well-meaning boy scout who plays by the rules. Even Grant Morrison’s affectionate throwback to these early adventures can’t quite capture the same sense of subversive radicalism which presents us with a version of the iconic superhero who does just flaunt the authority of law enforcement or legislature, but often directly challenges it.

Smashing!

Smashing!

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

Join us the December as we take a dive into the weird and wonderful Will Eisner Spirit Archives, the DC collections of the comic strip that helped define the medium.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Will Eisner had on comic books as a medium. The writer, entrepreneur and artist is known as “the father of the graphic novel”, with A Contract With God regard as one of te very first examples of the format. Eisner made massive in-roads into developing comics as a medium that merited discussion and attention, trying frantically to break out of the ghetto where the artform is so frequently trapped. While he has made countless pivotal contributions, arguably Eisner’s largest and most influential body of work can be found in The Spirit, the weekly comic strip that the author syndicated across America. Packaged with any number of respected newspapers, it was among the most widely-read comic strips in the country, but it also allowed Eisner the freedom to expand and develop his craft.

DC have collected the bulk of the character’s history in a series of their superb “Archive Editions”, from the first strip published through to Eisner’s last work on the title (with a supplementary volume published by Dark Horse). Here, in the first volume, we can see the artist honing his craft and developing the series into one of the most important in comic book history.

That’s his name!

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