Comic book reviews: Klarion by Ann Nocenti

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I am a fan of Ann Nocenti.  Between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s she wrote many offbeat, thought-provoking stories at Marvel Comics.  After leaving the comic book biz, Nocenti was involved in various other fields, working as a journalist, filmmaker and teacher.

I definitely missed the unique perspective that Nocenti brought to her work.  So I was happy that after DC Comics began their New 52 soft reboot, they hired Nocenti to write several of their titles.  Nocenti had runs on Green Arrow, Catwoman and Katana.  Her most recent work at DC was on Klarion.

Klarion 1 cover

The character of Klarion the Witch Boy was created by none other than Jack Kirby, and he made his debut in 1973 in The Demon #7.  Klarion appears to be something of a favorite among comic book creators, since he’s popped up semi-regularly in the decades since then.  I’m most familiar with him from his appearances in the revival of The Demon in the early 1990s by Alan Grant & Val Semeiks.

Klarion is admittedly an odd character to give an ongoing title, and when this was announced my first reaction was “That’s probably not going to last too long!”  Indeed, Klarion made it six issues before getting canceled.  It appears Nocenti herself recognized that she had a limited window of opportunity and made the most of the circumstances, going in and writing the hell out of the book for half a dozen issues.  The result is some very interesting stories.

As the first issue opens, Klarion is hitchhiking the crossroads of the multiverse, having run away from school after zapping his professor in the dark arts.  He gets a ride from Beelzebub, a demonic barber who specializes in close shaves.  Arriving on Earth, Klarion rescues a teenager named Rasp from getting beaten up.  Klarion is looking for a place to stay, and Rasp directs him to the Moody Museum.

The museum’s proprietors, Piper and Noah, offer Klarion a room and a job.  Klarion is immediately drawn to the lovely teenage mystic Zell.  Rasp, meanwhile, heads over to the Necropolitan Club to get some of the cutting-edge cyber-technology the proprietor Coal is disseminating.  Like all good drug dealers, Coal tells his customers “The first hit’s free.”  But after that, once he has his clientele hooked, he knows they will pay literally anything to maintain their upgrades.

That evening Klarion and Zell go to a party at the Necropolitan Club where they run into Rasp.  The teenager, who has an unrequited crush on Zell, is furious to see her with Klarion.  Using his new tech, Rasp lashes out at Klarion.  The Witch Boy is ready to hand Rasp a beating, until Piper and Noah step in and defuse the situation, at least temporarily.  Meanwhile, back at the Club, Coal proceeds with his plans to roll out his “Buddybot” technology, hoping to snag a large, well-paying group of customers.

Klarion 2 pg 2 & 3

As someone who is not a fan of decompressed storytelling, I very much enjoyed Nocenti’s writing on Klarion.  She packed a heck of a lot of plot and concepts into these six issues.

One of the main themes is that Klarion is an amoral individual who uses his powers recklessly.  He is walking along a moral tightrope, one he could slip off any minute.  Various factions recognize this.  Piper and Noah are hopeful that they can guide Klarion, teach him to use his powers in an ethical manner.  Coal and Beelzebub both recognize that the Witch Boy needs only the slightest nudge to send him into darkness.

Nocenti also addresses the extremely rapid advancement of science, the concern that technology evolves faster than the ability of human beings to utilize it responsibly.  Various characters debate whether the tech developed by Coal is value-neutral, or if it is good or bad, an asset or a curse.  Will humanity be able to utilize this new science, or will they become addicted and overwhelmed by it?  An argument between Klarion and Zell in issue #4 encapsulates this…

Klarion: Trust me, we’ve got to smash these things. Starting with your Petbot. Her tech is predatory.

Zell: She’s just a machine like any other. Is a phone evil? Only if you use it to hurt someone.

Klarion: They aren’t phones! They don’t just sit quietly in your pocket till you turn them on. They’re parasites. They feed off you and learn and grow.

Zell: Grow in good ways. I program my Buddybot. She’s symbiotic with me.

The idea that the Buddybots can be “grown” into the “perfect” lover or friend or pet is unsettling.  What exactly does that mean?  If the Bot you have always agrees with you, never argues with you, is it an actual entity?  Or is it merely just a projection of your own self?

Nocenti is exploring the same territory that she touched upon in the late 1980s in Daredevil with the character of Number Nine, who had been genetically re-engineered to be the “perfect” woman and wife.  Is that really someone who can be a genuine life companion, or is it merely a parrot in human form, feeding back to you what you want to hear?

Would you want a Buddybot?  Anyone who has been in a relationship and had a huge blow-out with their significant other, or who has been alone for a long time, is going to find that choice incredibly tempting.  Imagine always having a companion & lover and never fighting!  But would that be an authentic relationship?

I have sometimes heard love described as wanting to be with another person in spite of their flaws and mistakes.  Real relationships challenge you, force you to grow, require you to make compromises, to understand the other person.  Being involved with a “perfect” companion could be just the opposite of that, a narcissistic rut.  In the end, would you actually be happy?

Klarion 6 pg 5

Nocenti draws a parallel between Klarion’s struggle and that of humanity’s.  Just as the Witch Boy is at risk of misusing his mystic abilities, of being seduced by the power that he can tap into, the humans acquiring the nanotech from the Necropolitan Club are in danger of becoming addicted to it, of letting it overwhelm them.

Nocenti even argues that perhaps there really isn’t any difference between magic and technology, with one character stating a variation of Clarke’s Law:

“You know how everyone thought thunder was God’s bowling league? Everything mysterious turns out to be no big deal in the future.”

There is a whole lot to digest in Nocenti’s writing.  I’m looking forward to re-reading this series in the near future, seeing if I gain a different perspective.

While the final issue of Klarion did seem a bit rushed, on the whole Nocenti wrapped up her six issues in a very satisfactory manner.  She tells a more or less complete story while leaving open the possibility of certain character arcs and subplots being picked up in the future if the opportunity arises.

Klarion 1 pg 4 & 5

The majority of the art on Klarion is by Trevor McCarthy.  Wow, does he do some absolutely stunning work!  McCarthy lays out these incredibly striking multi-panel double page spreads.  He is incredibly inventive with his storytelling, yet he also knows exactly how to place everything so that the action moves from one panel to the next.

I have seen certain artists who attempted to be clever with their sequential illustration, and unfortunately as a reader I was not able to figure out what the hell was actually going on.  McCarthy, on the other hand, designs these sophisticated pages through which the narrative effortlessly flows.

On the pages where McCarthy also does inks / finishes, he packs in a tremendous amount of detail.  His work is very beautiful.  McCarthy’s character designs for Zell, Piper and Noah are striking and unique.

Guy Major does the coloring on the entire series.  He does impressive work, and it suits the art very well.

Klarion was an intriguingly written series with excellent artwork and coloring.  It’s well worth a look.  There is a trade paperback scheduled to come out in August, and I recommend getting a copy.

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Alex De Campi reopens the Grindhouse

I definitely enjoyed the eight issue comic book horror anthology Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight written by Alex De Campi, which Dark Horse published last year.  So I was happy to find out that a “second season” had been given the go-ahead.  The first four issues of Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out feature more excellent, unnerving writing from De Campi.

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 1 cover

The opening two-parter “Slay Ride” is illustrated by R.M. Guera.  It is Christmas Eve in northwest Canada, and death stalks the countryside.  A group of malevolent spirits have taken on humanoid form and begun a killing spree.  After claiming their first two victims, the entities approach the elderly Mother Wolf, only to let her be when they sense that she is already dying of cancer.

Mother Wolf telephones Shayla, an embittered woman who is estranged from her family, to let her know that her father and brother have been murdered.  Mother Wolf convinces the reluctant Shayla to try to help the other families in the remote area before they are also slaughtered by the creatures.

De Campi is deliberately vague about the nature of these entities.  Attempting to explain them to Shayla, Mother Wolf states…

“You have to make a conscious decision to be good. It’s hard. The world wears you down. Every day, you have to start trying all over again.

“Or else, monsters like these? They tiptoe in on every hateful thought.

“If you believe in something enough, it appears. They are what we believe in now. Greed. Compulsion. Addiction.”

These beings appear to be human sin and weakness made sentient & corporeal.  Their physical “bodies” are created from snow, and although this makes them somewhat easy to disperse they are nevertheless extremely dangerous.  Even if their forms are destroyed, it seems likely that whatever was animating them still exists and has merely been temporarily banished.

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 1 pg 10

“Slay Ride” is allegorical and open to interpretation.  For example, Shayla alludes to these beings having claimed members of her family many times in the past.  It is unclear if this means that they have actually manifested before, or if the vices they represent, such as lust and alcoholism, have plagued her family through the decades.

We also are never told the exact relationship between Shayla and Mother Wolf.  Is the elderly woman her aunt, her grandmother, or something else?  De Campi doesn’t specify.

While the lack of details and explanations can be maddening, this undoubtedly contributes to the unnerving tone of the story.  “Slay Ride” is a darkly surreal nightmare, and the unanswered questions compound the reader’s unease.

Guera’s artwork possesses a palpable air of twisted insanity.  The designs for the entities are comically twisted, simultaneously outrageous caricatures and grotesque phantasms.  The coloring by Giulia Brusco works extremely well with Guera’s art, and the end result is an atmosphere of oppressive bleakness and razor-taut anxiety.

De Campi totally shifts gears in her second story, “Blood Lagoon,” which reunites her with artist Chris Peterson, her collaborator on “Bee Vixens From Mars” from the first Grindhouse series.  “Blood Lagoon” features the return of the sardonic, ass-kicking Garcia, aka “that crazy, one-eyed Latina.”

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 4 cover

Also making a comeback are Wayne and Sergei, the couple who helped her defeat the Martian invasion.  The two are engaged to marry, and Wayne is hoping to convince his father to attend.  Of course, this is the Deep South and Wayne’s father is a redneck of the first order, with accompanying homophobia.  Garcia reluctantly accompanies Wayne on the road trip to Alabama, although she expects it will be an exercise in futility.  As she dryly inquires, “On a scale of zero ta minus ten, how much fun is this trip gonna be?”

Not surprisingly, Wayne’s father Billy Ray provides anything but a warm welcome.  On top of that, while Wayne is happy to be home for a visit and reunite with old friends, he is depressed to see that the town is in dire straits.  Unemployment is rampant and the area is being polluted by the local slaughterhouse.

And then the aliens show up.  This time, though, instead of a hive of seductive bee-women, a horde of giant blood-sucking ticks is on the rampage.

Once again De Campi presents a story where the protagonists fall outside of what some would refer to as “traditional American mainstream.”  Garcia is an older Hispanic woman.  Even though her family has lived in Texas for generations, people keep ignorantly assuming she is an immigrant from Mexico, which understandably infuriates her to no end.  Wayne is a homosexual who grew up in rural Tennessee, and as a result had to find the ability to stand up on his own two feet and defend himself at a very early age.  Wayne’s old friend Vikki and her teenage son Darryl are African American, and Vikki proudly proclaims that her late father was a Black Panther back in the day.

De Campi humorous lampshades the backgrounds of her cast when they hole up in the town liquor store to fight off the giant ticks.  Vikki hands her cell phone to Wayne’s father and tells him “Billy Ray, you call the police. You sound white, they’ll listen to you.”  It’s a funny line, but it’s also sadly depressing in its accuracy.

Grindhouse Drive In Bleed Out 3 pg 14

It eventually once again falls to Garcia to save the day.  De Campi shows us that Garcia is tough-as-nails without making her invulnerable.

As I’ve noted before, one of the reasons I like the original Die Hard movie is because John McClane, despite the fact that he was out-fighting terrorists, very much came across as an everyman, and he was put through the wringer.  This was also more or less the case in the sequel.  But by the third one McClane had become an unstoppable action hero, and I totally lost interest in the series at that point.

Fortunately De Campi does not fall into this trap.  Garcia beats the odds, but she comes out bruised and bloody.  She isn’t given an easy victory, which of course makes it all the more compelling when she does succeed.

“Blood Lagoon” is a violently comedic farce.  Peterson’s artwork is perfect for this story.  He very adeptly renders both humorous gags and horrific gore side-by-side.

I also appreciate Peterson’s depictions of Garcia.  She is an older woman, but she is still in shape and attractive.  I think some artists are unfortunately only able to draw two types of women: young & sexy and old & frail.  Much like Steve Epting’s excellent work illustrating Velvet Templeton in Velvet from Image Comics, Peterson renders Garcia as a woman in her mid-forties who is very much ready to kick some caboose and turn heads in the process.

Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out has so far been impressive and fun.  I’m definitely looking forward to the second half.

By the way, the first three issues actually sold out before I could buy them at one of the comic shops in Manhattan.  I was able to purchase all four through Things From Another World Comics, which has a section on their website for De Campi’s work.  So if you’re having trouble locating Grindhouse, head on over there: Alex De Campi at tfaw.comics

And, no, I am not getting a cut of the profits from TFAW!  I am just trying to help out and point people in the direction of some excellent comics that might have fallen under their radar.  Try some new stuff;  it’s good for you!

Glen Orbik: 1963 to 2015

Last week on his Facebook page, artist Joe Jusko announced the sad news that painter Glen Orbik had passed away at the much too young age of 51 years.  Orbik had been suffering from cancer, and on May 11th he succumbed to his illness.

While I was not especially familiar with Glen Orbik’s work, I immediately recognized his name.  For about a decade, beginning in the mid 1990s, Orbik painted a number of beautiful comic book covers.  Many of these were done for DC Comics.

Orbik’s first comic book cover was for Aquaman #25.  He painted a striking portrait of the king of the seas, giving him a noble, contemplative look.  Orbik’s style was very well suited to capturing the roughly-hewn majesty of Peter David’s revamp of Aquaman, with his long hair, beard, bare chest and harpoon in place of his lost left hand.

Legends of the DC Universe 1 cover

Also for DC Comics, Orbik illustrated the cover to the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash.  He contributed covers to the Batman story arcs “Cataclysm,” “Aftershock,” and “No Man’s Land.”  Orbik also painted covers for the anthology title Legends of the DC Universe, including the three issue debut arc starring Superman.  For these Orbik rendered a vision of the Man of Steel that was both bursting with power and endowed with humanity.

During his career Orbik illustrated numerous book covers.  His work was well suited to science fiction, fantasy and especially mystery & noir.  Orbik’s moody, atmospheric work in that genre made him an absolutely ideal choice to contribute several covers to DC Comics’ 1997 annuals, which had the loose overarching theme of “Pulp Heroes.”

Among Orbik’s covers for the “Pulp Heroes” annuals was the incredibly striking painted artwork for Aquaman Annual #3.  His depiction of Aquaman was once again both savage and noble, gracefully gliding through the ocean to discover a beautiful murder victim, an image that was a superb amalgamation of fantasy and hard-boiled crime imagery.

Aquaman Annual 3 cover

Orbik also did work for other comic book companies.  He painted several covers and trading cards for Marvel Comics.  Most notably, Orbik’s dynamic cover for Thor #41 (November 2001) was later re-used in the character’s profile for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Avengers 2004.  He painted several covers for The Victorian and Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness, both from Penny-Farthing Productions. He also contributed a variant cover to The Oz / Wonderland Chronicles #3 in 2008 (the main cover for which, incidentally, was illustrated by Jusko).

Orbik’s wife Laurel Blechman was an artist, as well.  She collaborated with him on various covers, including his DC Comics work.

A large selection of Glen Orbik’s paintings, including those he did with Blechman, is on display at his official website.  I definitely recommend visiting it.  There is some incredibly beautiful art to be seen.

It is unfortunate that Orbik passed away at such a young age.  He was a very talented artist.

Look out! Here comes Spider-Gwen!

A few months ago Marvel Comics published the epic “Spider-Verse” crossover masterminded by writer Dan Slott, which featured appearances by pretty much every single alternate reality version of Spider-Man ever conceived, as well as introducing numerous new incarnations.  The breakout star of “Spider-Verse” was Gwen Stacy as a new Spider-Woman, who fans took to calling “Spider-Gwen.”

Making her debut in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, this parallel universe revision of Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman was quickly given an ongoing title once “Spider-Verse” wrapped up.  Spider-Gwen #1 hit the shelves a mere five months after Edge of Spider-Verse #2, and so far is selling at a brisk pace.

Spider-Gwen 1 cover

I think there is a very basic reason why Spider-Gwen is such a success, and it ties in with the history of the original version of the character.  Gwen Stacy first appeared in 1965 in Amazing Spider-Man #31 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee.  Gwen was originally something of a haughty ice queen.  After Ditko departed the series, Lee and new penciler John Romita gradually transformed Gwen into a warmer, caring figure.  She became involved in a long-term relationship with Peter Parker.  All these years later many long-time readers regard Gwen as Spider-Man’s first true love.

Fast forward to 1973 and the tragic events of Amazing Spider-Man #121.  In a story by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane & John Romita,  Gwen Stacy was brutally murdered by Spider-Man’s arch-enemy the Green Goblin, thrown from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In hindsight, Gwen’s death is probably the first prominent example of what two decades later would be referred to by Gail Simone as “women in refrigerators” syndrome.

Ever since then the character of Gwen Stacy has been defined primarily by her death, by the fact that she was killed by Norman Osborn in order to make Spider-Man suffer.  A version of Gwen introduced in Ultimate Spider-Man was eventually murdered by Carnage.  Gwen appeared in the two recent Amazing Spider-Man movies, played by actress Emma Stone.  And, yep, at the end of the second one, she gets killed by the Green Goblin.  No matter what reality Gwen popped up in she seemed to have a target painted on her back, and fans were left holding their breaths waiting for someone to inevitably pull the trigger.

So by introducing an alternate reality version of Gwen Stacy who is Spider-Woman, this horrible trend is finally turned completely around.  Instead of being a victim, Gwen is now a hero.

Of course, it’s not just the concept but the execution.  As I understand it, Slott initially thought up the idea of giving a parallel universe version of Gwen the spider-powers.  The actual development of the character fell to writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez, the latter of whom designed Spider-Woman’s distinctive costume.

Edge of Spider-Verse 2 pg 2 & 3 Spider-Gwen origin

I have to admit, when I first read Spider-Gwen #1-4 I was a bit lost.  I felt like I had come in on the second act.  So I went and finally purchased Edge of Spider-Verse #2, now on its fifth printing (I told you the character was hot).  Reading that and then re-reading those issues of Spider-Gwen, things did make more sense.

Admittedly the story in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 drops the readers right into the middle of things.  I imagine that when Latour wrote it he didn’t have any idea that Spider-Woman would be an instant hit.  So he set out to give readers a crash course on Gwen’s origin via a quick two-page flashback before showing us what she was up to, and then ending the issue with a hook leading into the rest of the “Spider-Verse” crossover.

In the Spider-Gwen reality of Earth-65 it was Gwen Stacy and not Peter Parker who got bit by a radioactive spider and gained super-powers.  Much like Peter did waaaay back in Amazing Fantasy #15, Gwen adopted a costumed identity in order to seek fame & fortune.

Peter, who was as much of a socially awkward nerd in this reality as he was on “mainstream” Earth-616, became a huge fan of Spider-Woman.  Tired of being bullied by his high school classmates, Peter decided he also wanted to be famous.  He developed what appeared to be a serum similar to the one that turned Curt Connors into the Lizard.  Transforming into a monster, Peter fought Spider-Woman, and during the battle was fatally wounded.  The dying Peter told Spider-Woman “I just… just… wanted to be special… like you.”  This left Gwen completely devastated, as she and Peter had been close friends.

The J. Jonah Jameson of this world, who much like his 616 counterpart never met a spider-themed vigilante who he didn’t hate, immediately began blaming Spider-Woman for Peter’s death.  His editorials in The Daily Bugle convinced the general public and the NYPD that Spider-Woman is a criminal.

In a crowning piece of irony, Jameson is the one who declares “Spider-Woman and those like her must learn that with their great power comes an even greater responsibility!”  It is an admonishment that Gwen takes to heart.  She sets aside her frivolous goals and vows to use her powers to help others, even if most people believe her to be a murderer.

Edge of Spider-Verse 2 pg 18

Gwen’s task is made all the more difficult by the fact that the police officer leading the manhunt for her is none other than her father, Captain George Stacy.  This ends up placing Stacy in the crosshairs of the Kingpin, who has his own plans for Spider-Woman.  An assassin is dispatched to murder the police captain.  Spider-Woman saves her father’s life, but Stacy immediately turns around and tries to arrest her.  This forces Gwen to unmask, much to her father’s shock.  She attempts to explain her actions to her father:

“You’re a good cop, Dad. You put on that badge and carry that gun because you know if you don’t, someone who shouldn’t will.

“When I put this mask on, I only did it because it freed me from responsibility. I thought I was special. And Peter Parker died because he tried to follow my example. I have to take responsibility for that. To make his death mean something.

“This mask is my badge now. If I don’t define what it means, monsters like this will. This is where I’m needed most.”

I’m glad that Latour got the reveal of Gwen’s identity to her father out of the way early on.  He avoided having the clichéd set-up of an authority figure on a misguided mission to hunt down a misunderstood vigilante, not knowing that their target is a loved one.  That type of thing has been played out too many times in the past.

The Spider-Gwen series is very much concerned with Gwen’s efforts to make things right.  Beneath the flippant attitude and corny quips of Spider-Woman, she is in turmoil, still haunted by feelings of guilt over Peter’s death.  Her relationship with her father is severely strained, as she has forced him to choose between his responsibilities as a parent and his duty as a police officer.  She is very much the novice crime-fighter, making a number of serious mistakes.  Gwen also struggles to balance her two identities, to find a way to be both an ordinary teen and a super-hero.  Her friendships with the members of the band the Mary Janes is on the skids since she keeps flaking out on them due to her activities as Spider-Woman.

It’s interesting how similar yet how different the Spider-Gwen universe is from the “regular” Marvel universe.  The Kingpin and the Vulture are much like their 616 selves.  Matt Murdock is not Daredevil but he is still blind and possesses heightened senses.  However in this reality he works as the Kingpin’s lawyer and is totally corrupt.  Frank Castle is also a regular fixture, not as the Punisher, but as a member of the NYPD, albeit one who is nearly as ruthless as his vigilante counterpart.  Castle’s idea of “interrogating” a suspect is to beat him within an inch of his life.

Spider-Gwen 2 pg 3

Despite the often somber tone, Latour features a lot of humor in his stories.  Spider-Woman draws the Vulture out of hiding by spray painting insulting graffiti all about the city such as “Your nest is a hot mess” and “Death from a butt.”  In the second issue, after sustaining a concussion during her battle with the Vulture, Gwen begins hallucinating that her one-time ally Spider-Ham is following her around making smartass comments.

I did feel that these issues went by a bit too quickly.  At $3.99 each, it would be nice if they were somewhat more substantial reads.  But that’s hardly a complaint that I would direct solely at Latour.  It seems endemic of a good portion of the comic book biz: the more expensive single issues become, the shorter the time it takes to read them, or so it seems.

The artwork by Rodriguez on Spider-Gwen is amazing.  He gives this series a unique look and atmosphere.  Rodriguez’s illustration of the action sequences is dynamic, with extremely effective layouts & storytelling.  Likewise, he does solid work with the quieter character moments, as in issue #4 when May Parker talks to Gwen about what happened to Peter, and about her feelings concerning Spider-Woman.

Spider-Gwen 3 pg 10

Rico Renzi’s coloring on these issues certainly stands out.  He utilizes unusual, distinctive hues to create a palpable sense of atmosphere.  Renzi’s coloring very much complements Rodriguez’s artwork.

The design sense that Rodriguez demonstrates on his covers for Spider-Gwen is striking.  He creates very eye-catching, abstract compositions on each of them.

As with so many other comic books nowadays, Spider-Gwen is being released with numerous variant covers by a number of different artists.  For issue #4 I decided to mix things up a bit and buy one of those, the regularly-priced variant by Mark Brooks.  His portrait of Spider-Woman hanging out on the side of the George Washington Bridge is done a much more photo-realistic style than Rodriguez’s work.  I’ve recently seen Brooks’ work on a number of covers for Marvel titles.  He’s done quality work on these.

Spider-Gwen 4 variant cover

While I was somewhat undecided after reading the first couple of issues of Spider-Gwen, the next two hooked my interest.  For the time being I think I’ll keep following this book and see where Latour & Rodriguez are going.

At the very least, with all the action taking place on “Earth-65” I hopefully won’t have to worry about Spider-Woman getting tied up in all the Secret Wars shenanigans currently occupying most of Marvel’s publishing line.  Ideally Gwen will be given the time to feature in several stories in her own reality, to stand on her own two feet, before once again crossing over into other realities.

Having said that, if and when Spider-Gwen does pay a visit to Earth-616, hopefully we will get to see her toss Norman Osborn off a bridge!

Cats and comic books: Hero Cats #3-5

The Hero Cats comic book series from Action Lab Entertainment continues to be an enjoyable read.  I previously reviewed the first two issues, so now let’s take a look at #s 3-5.

Hero Cats 3 cover

Cassiopeia, the newest member of the Hero Cats team, has been serving as the gateway character, the readers’ introduction to the rest of the book’s cast, both feline and human.  In issue #3 we see her official basic training, as the rest of the kitty commandos put her through the paces to see if she has what it takes to battle evil and protect the innocent.

Kyle Puttkammer’s script for this issue is both funny and moving.  He does a good job showing the novice Cassiopeia overcoming her doubts & inexperience to be accepted by the team.  Puttkammer also examines the motivations of Hero Cat leader Ace, and shows the developing bond between him and Cassiopeia.  The story is very thoughtful, sentimental and laugh-out-loud funny.

In issue #4 the Hero Cats explore a subterranean mystery beneath Stellar City.  They discover a civilization of trolls and help them fight off invading rock monsters.  Puttkammer uses the story to delve into the background of Belle, the long-haired telepathic member of the team.

Hero Cats 4 pg 16

In prior issues of Hero Cats readers were told of how Cassiopeia’s humans, Stanley Quest and his daughter Suzie, were secretly the costumed crime-fighters Galaxy Man and Cosmic Girl.  Cassiopeia and the rest of her team finally discover this in issue #5.  The cynical Midnight and Belle are both automatically suspicious, observing that all of the bizarre menaces that have been plaguing Stellar City only began to show up after Galaxy Man first made his debut.  Cassiopeia, of course, thinks they are being ridiculous.

Actually, though, Cassiopeia’s two teammates might just be on to something.  During his latest journey into outer space to search for his missing astronaut wife Amelia, Galaxy Man unwittingly brings back to Earth a swarm of ravenous space bugs.  Fortunately it turns out they are allergic to peanut butter.  Cassiopeia, Rocco and Rocket all team up with Cosmic Girl, who has, amazingly enough, still managed to keep her identity a secret from her father.

Puttkammer’s writing on these three issues is great.  As I have observed before, he is one of those writers whose stories can be appreciated on different levels.  Younger readers will enjoy the cute cats and their funny adventures.  Adults will appreciate the development of the felines’ different personalities.  Puttkammer does a good job scripting the Hero Cats’ interactions as they work to apply their often-clashing world views and philosophies to solving the crises facing them.

Hero Cats 3 pg 9

I certainly had to chuckle at the various scenes in these issues of Cassiopeia trying to talk to her humans.  We the readers obviously understand her dialogue, but to the people in the story it just sounds like “Meow meow meow!”  I expect anyone who has ever had a cat can identify with that.  Cats can be very expressive, and they often appear to be attempting to communicate with us.  You just know when a cat is telling you something, even if you may not know precisely what it is.

I really enjoy the work by penciler Marcus Williams and inker Ryan Sellers.  Their art is cute and expressive, possessing a real dynamic quality.  Williams & Sellers invest their characters with genuine emotion.  They are great at rendering both dramatic action sequences and quieter scenes featuring Puttkammer’s passages of dialogue.

Tracy Yardley once again illustrates the Galaxy Man & Cosmic Girl two page back-up stories in Hero Cats, as well as penciling the cover to issue #6.  It was interesting to see his interpretations of the various cats on that.  Yardley has a somewhat different style from Williams, but he is definitely a good fit for this series.  I hope he will continue to contribute to Hero Cats.

Hero Cats 6 cover

Once again, I recommend this series.  Back issues can be ordered through the Hero Cats website.  There is also a trade paperback out collecting the first three issues.

Y’know, while I’ve been typing up this review, one of my two cats, Squeaky, has been sitting next to the desk.  I think she wants me to pay less attention to fictional felines and spend more time with her.  Looks like it’s time for treats and tummy rubs!

Super Blog Team-Up 6: Top Ten Avengers Sketches

Welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 6!  Has it really been three months since the last SBTU?  I guess time flies while life’s kicking you in the gut!  Seriously, lately things have been insane.  I’m grateful that I have this blog as a creative outlet to help me unwind.

The theme of SBTU 6 is “Top Ten.”  All the contributors have come up with cool comic-related Top Ten lists.  I must thank Karen Williams of Between the Pages for suggesting that I do a list involving my hobby of collecting comic book convention sketches.  Since a number of SBTU 6 bloggers are doing Avengers-related lists to tie in with the release of the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, I decided to assemble my top ten Avengers sketches.

Avengers Assemble title page by Richard Howell I’m a long-time fan of the Avengers comic book series published by Marvel Comics, and I started an “Avengers Assemble” themed sketchbook in 2007.  Okay, I’m not too enthusiastic about some of the stories from the last ten years or so.  But there are many classic stories that have been published in the decades before, and numerous amazing characters have been members of the various Avengers teams.  The Avengers are the perfect subject for a convention sketchbook.

Narrowing it down to ten picks was difficult.  I’ve gotten over fifty sketches in this book so far.  There are a few that just missed the cut.  If you asked me again next month I might come up with a different list.  I also didn’t include a couple of pieces that were commissions, where the artists has the sketchbook for a few days and created detailed illustrations.  I will probably spotlight those in some other post in the future.  If you are an artist who contributed to this book and did not make the list, please don’t be offended!  I also posted these in chronological order because I couldn’t make up my mind which one was the best. Without further ado, here is my list of top ten Avengers sketches:

1) Scarlet Witch by Richard Howell Scarlet Witch sketch by Richard Howell Once I decided to start an Avengers sketchbook, I knew that I wanted Richard Howell to start it off with a drawing of the Scarlet Witch.  As a teenager who saw Wanda drawn by Howell in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents #60-63, I thought it was the sexiest version of the character I had ever seen. Of course, Howell had also penciled the twelve part Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries a few years before which I later read via back issues. To this day, I still consider Richard’s depiction of Wanda to be one of the most beautiful in the character’s history.

I was thrilled that I was able to kick off the sketchbook with this lovely portrait by Howell.  He also drew / lettered the “Avengers Assemble” title page for the book that appears at the top of this post.

2) Black Widow by Hannibal King Black Widow sketch by Hannibal King Hannibal King is good at illustrating tough, sexy women.  When I asked him if he’d draw the Black Widow, he smiled and said “You just made my day.” Obviously he’s fond of the character, which was good news for me. King proceeded to create this stunning pencil illustration. While King was drawing this, I looked through his portfolio. He had done some incredible pieces featuring Captain America, Nick Fury, Val Fontaine, and Hydra. Someone at Marvel ought to give him a S.H.I.E.L.D. story to illustrate ASAP!

This sketch was later printed in Back Issue #26.  Head over to the TwoMorrows Publishing website for information on that magazine, as well as other quality comic book-related publications.

3) Wasp by Brian Kong Wasp sketch by Brian Kong Brian Kong drew a whole heap of very cool Avengers sketch cards, including several of the Wasp.  When I asked Kong if he’d do a drawing of the Wasp, he asked “Which costume?”  Because, oh lordy, Janet Van Dyne had had soooooo many different costumes over the years!  One of my favorites was the one George Perez drew her in during the early 80s, and again in the late 90s. I asked Kong if he could draw the Wasp in that, and he grinned, responding “I was just about to suggest that one.”

I’ve seen Kong at a number of NY area conventions over the years, and obtained several sketches from him.  This one of the Wasp is probably my favorite.  He did an amazing job on it.

4) Warbird / Ms. Marvel by Taki Soma Ms Marvel Warbird sketch by Taki Soma Back in 2008 Taki Soma was also drawing Avengers sketch cards, and so she had a book full of Marvel reference on hand. I flipped through the Avengers chapter, saw there was a profile on Ms. Marvel, and asked Soma if she would be able to do a sketch using that. I was very happy with her depiction of Carol Danvers. Soma is definitely a talented artist.  In the last few years she’s collaborated with her husband Michael Avon Oeming on several projects.

5) Jocasta by Andy MacDonald Jocasta sketch by Andy MacDonald It was his excellent work on NYC Mech that caused me to ask Andy MacDonald to sketch Jocasta.  He draws incredible robots and sci-fi tech.  I just knew he’d do a great job rendering “the bride of Ultron.”  I always liked the character, and in the past wished she’d been an Avengers member for longer (I was thrilled when Dan Slott featured her in the Mighty Avengers series).  Jocasta has such a distinctive visual, as well as an unusual backstory (inspired by Oedipus Rex, naturally).

MacDonald really captured the character of Jocasta, both in terms of her look and her personality.  It’s a very expressive piece.  This is another sketch that was published in Back Issue, appearing in Jarrod Buttery’s article on Jocasta in the robot-themed issue #72.

6) Black Panther by Sal Abbinanti Black Panther sketch by Sal Abbinanti Atomika creator Sal Abbinanti was drawing some amazing, rather surreal color sketches at the 2008 MoCCA Art Festival. He certainly did a great job on this one. Not even having a fire alarm going off and he building getting evacuated by the FDNY when he was halfway done with it threw him off his game. I suppose you could say Abbinanti was “on fire” with this one!  He really went all out, and it shows.

7) Patriot by Ben Granoff Patriot sketch by Ben Granoff I really did enjoy the various Young Avengers miniseries, even if they did come out infrequently.  The team had some cool characters, including the current Patriot, Eli Bradley.  I saw independent artist Ben Granoff‘s work on the small press series We Were The… Freedom Federation published by Bag & Board Studios, and I was impressed.  Indeed, he drew an amazing illustration of Patriot.  This one totally surpassed my expectations.

8) Hercules by Chris Giarusso Hercules sketch by Chris GiarrussoI’m a fan of Chris Giarrusso, creator of Mini Marvels and G-Man.  He seemed like the perfect choice to draw Hercules, the mythical and mirthful Avenger who is never more happy than when he’s busting heads together, or knocking back a large flagon of mead, often doing both at the same time!  The reference I had for Hercules had the character grimacing, but I asked Chris to draw a smiling Hercules, adding “Pretend he’s just left the bar or something.”  Chris literally ran with my suggestion, and here we see Herc with a frosty mug of beer in hand, having a grand old night on the town!

9) Hawkeye / Kate Bishop by Ed Coutts Hawkeye Kate Bishop sketch by Ed Coutts Here’s a great sketch of Kate Bishop, another member of the Young Avengers, and co-star of the Hawkeye ongoing series featuring her teamed up with the original avenging archer Clint Barton.  This was drawn by Ed Coutts, a very talented artist.  His work has appeared in a number of issues of Femforce from AC Comics.  He renders very beautiful women.  I’ve met Coutts at a number of conventions and acquired several nice sketches from him.

10) Ant-Man / Scott Lang by Jacob Chabot Ant-Man Scott Lang sketch by Jacob Chabot Scott Lang, the second Ant-Man, is drawn by Jacob Chabot. This is the costume & helmet Scott wore when he was a member of Heroes for Hire, and when he first officially joined the Avengers (I wasn’t a fan of his “gas mask” helmet that briefly followed). Chabot he drew a very cool sketch of the character. I love the inking on this piece.

Scott Lang has a new solo comic book currently running, and he’s scheduled to make his cinematic debut in the upcoming Ant-Man movie.  That gave me yet another good reason to include this great sketch in this top ten list.

11) Ultron by Chris Duckett Ultron sketch by Chris Duckett Ultron, that murderous mechanical menace, arch adversary of the Avengers, and current star of the silver screen is superbly rendered in this pencil illustration by the talented Chris Duckett from the Bronx Heroes team of creators.  If you ever meet Duckett at a convention, I recommend getting a sketch from him. He does fantastic work.

What’s that, you say?  This was supposed to be a top ten and not a top eleven?!?  Bah!!!  Ultron laughs at you humans and your silly rules!  And soon Ultron will rule the world, humanity will be destroyed, and every single entry on this list will be a different incarnation of his mechanical brilliance!  Until that day inevitably comes, weak creatures of the flesh, you will have to learn to accept that there is an extra entry to spotlight the supreme genius of Ultron 🙂

Super Blog Team-Up 6 continues below I hope everyone enjoyed this top ten (um, top eleven) countdown of Avengers convention sketches.  You can see scans of the entire sketchbook at Comic Art Fans… http://www.comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=43066

Be sure to also visit the other fantastic blogs participating in Super Blog Team-Up 6…

  1. Longbox Graveyard: Top 10 Super-Dogs
  2. The Unspoken Decade: Top 10 Avengers Moments of the 1990s
  3. Legion Of Super-Bloggers: Top 10 Who’s Who Legion Entries
  4. The SuperHero Satellite: Top 10 DC Comics Titles That Ended Before Their Time
  5. Flodo’s Page: Top 10 Green Lantern Ring-Slings …That Don’t Appear In Modern Continuity
  6. Fantastiverse: Top 10 Avengers Greatest Super Battles
  7. Mystery V-Log: Top 10 Avengers Covers
  8. Idol Head Of Diablou: Top 10 Most Important Martian Manhunter Villains
  9. Marvel Superheroes Podcast: Top 10 Avengers Age Of Ultron Tie-In
  10. Chasing Amazing: Top 10 Favorite Moments Of The “Chase”
  11. Between The Pages: Top 10 Wackiest DC Comics Covers
  12. Bronze Age Babies: The Top 10 Bronze Age Characters (x2!)
  13. Too Dangerous For A Girl!: Top Ten Worst Heroic Haircuts
  14. Vic Sage Via The Retroist: Top Ten Comic Character Deaths
  15. I’m The Gun: The 10 Best All-Star Squadron Covers

Two thumbs up to Charlton Hero for organizing this whole shebang.  As always, it’s been a blast!