Friday, September 18, 2020

"One man's terrorist is another man's liberator, father." Black review

I recently sat down and read Black, a trade paperback published by Black Mask which collects all six issues of the comic book series by writer Kwanza Osajyefo and artist Jamal Igle. It was originally published in 2016 and drew some controversy at the time. The controversy seemed to be rooted in the premise: that Black is a super hero story set in a world where only black people have super powers. I assumed the criticism was coming from the more racist and fragile corners of toxic online comics fandom - I intended to keep an open mind as I read the book.

Unfortunately, I was very disappointed in this series. The idea that only black people have super powers in this world is a provocative notion. However, I don't think the comic ever lives up to its premise. I've never read anything by Osajyefo before -- it appears Black was his first big project. I was familiar with Igle, however, and the story is definitely helped by Igle's steady artwork. Although the entire story was rendered in black and white, Igle's dynamic art keeps the story looking energetic.

Initially Black seems to have two point-of-view characters encountering its world. One is a young man named Kareem Jenkins who gains his powers at the start of the series after being gunned down by police officers. Jenkins is quickly snapped up by a secret society of black superhumans who explain something about their world to him. The second POV character is Ellen Michaels, a black police detective who examines the black superhuman community from the outside. However, when Michaels finally confronts the superhumans in the fifth issue her story is basically over; well before that point it's clear that Jenkins is the one true protagonist of this series.

Yet although Jenkins is a decent POV character in terms of explaining the world the superhumans run around in, he's virtually a blank slate; beyond being black and having powers I never came to understand his character. Like, he had two friends at his side when he was gunned down in the opening pages; not once does he seem to care about his friends' murder or wonder if either of them similarly survived the attack by manifesting super powers. Not once does Jenkins look back at his old life -- whatever that was -- and yearn to see his family or friends. We don't even get a sense of his age or occupation. Once he's brought into the fold by the black superhumans, he exists solely in a world populated by superhumans (and their enemies).

I feel it's a problem as it becomes hard to define what exactly is at stake in Black. The main concern seems to be keeping the black superhumans' existence a secret, but when they eventually reveal that superhuman blacks have existed in this world for more than 150 years (issue #5 during a long monologue), it becomes awfully hard to believe that the secret could have been kept under wraps. Indeed, the bubble is burst pretty easily in the final pages of the sixth issue. It's not so much that this is what our world would be like if there were black superbeings so much as this is what a super hero world would be like if there were only black superbeings. I mean, the white people who have been oppressing the blacks have super exo-armor and robots. That ain't our world.

This is a very uncharitable comparison, but the comic which I was most reminded of while reading Black was Rob Liefeld's Youngblood. By that I mean, Black is constantly introducing superhumans one mob at a time; they crowd the page, their names and powers unknown (Liefeld at least had the common courtesy to include text boxes identifying where in the thesaurus he found his codenames), then about ten pages later another gaggle of superhumans are introduced. None of them make an impression. There are perhaps one dozen characters who are important to this story's plot, but there are about four dozen characters jockeying for panel time. I think it was meant to indicate that the superbeings in Black are set in a lived-in universe where the local superbeings have a history we readers only glimpse. However, the throngs of superhumans just feel tiresome, much like Liefeld's thesaurus mobs.

The X-Men have been a very flexible premise for exploring different kinds of discrimination while remaining a sci-fi/super hero concept. Black wears its metaphor on its sleeve (I mean, there are teams designated 'King' and 'Selma'; subtle, it ain't); this isn't "people born with super powers would face discrimination" it's "people born with black skin AND super powers would face discrimination." There's also something buried in there about black people possessing power and how that power should/could be exercised. Black is a very interesting premise in search of a plot.

Friday, September 11, 2020

"Let's see if this old timer can still weave a good yarn." The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television review

Back in the 1990s when my family had the Sci Fi Channel, whenever the channel would run marathons of the original Twilight Zone I tried to tune in and catch as many as I could. I certainly didn't love them all equally -- "The Howling Man" mesmerized me; "From Agnes - with Love" was tiresome; and I was flummoxed as to why "The Lateness of the Hour" was shot on video. All in all, I understood why the television series was so highly regarded. Thirty years after their original broadcast, those shows still stood up. I eventually bought the complete series on DVD.

Recently Humanoids published an interesting graphic novel titled The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi. I had never previously seen Shadmi's work and I'm quite impressed by his style. The art has very clean lines and the pacing is quite relaxed. Somehow Shadmi found a means to tell Serling's life story in less than 170 pages without meandering or rushing through his life; indeed, Shadmi has some very creative ideas about how to approach Serling's life, framing it through scenes of Serling aboard an airplane narrating his biography to another passenger. Shadmi makes the story feel like an authentic account of Serling's life, but the weirdness of the Twilight Zone creeps into Serling's account.

The book is also told in black & white, the format one immediately thinks of when thinking of the Twilight Zone. Scenes set aboard the airplane (the framing device) are cast in deep grey shades, setting them off from the rest of the book. Shadmi spends a fair bit of time on Serling's life before becoming a writer, depicting his actions as a paratrooper in World War II. His wartime exploits aren't explicitly connected to his later career, but these details were very interesting to me. I knew a number of anecdotes about Serling's life and I was pleased to see many of them replicated here - Shadmi recreates Serling's notorioius interview with Mike Wallace and he visits Serling's falling out with Ray Bradbury. I'm a little disappointed that Serling's put-down on Night Gallery as "Mannix in a graveyard" didn't make it in, but the book certainly gets across what a dispiriting experience Night Gallery was for Serling.

I enjoyed learning more about Serling's television career prior to Twilight Zone. I knew of of his productions (and I've seen the film adaptation of Patterns) but this filled in a lot of information about how Serling became a television playwright. For all the acclaim Serling won, it's a little startling to see just how brief that span of his career lasted. The Twilight Zone really secured him a place in television history.

If you're a Twilight Zone fan you'll want to read this; if you're interested in the history of television, you'll find much of interest; if you just want a great biography, check it out.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

"This is why people love basketball." Dragon Hoops review

When I was a boy, one summer I went to a summer camp which had a basketball net set up. I played around with the basketball, usually alone. A counselor who must have surmised that I had low self-esteem tried to encourage me in the sport and I got to think that I was okay at it -- but once I saw how much better my classmates at school were at basketball, I keep away from it. In retrospect, I should have asked my parents for a basketball and played it on my own time just for fun. I regret that I've never been very good at any competitive sports.

Which brings me to Gene Luen Yang's new graphic novel Dragon Hoops. I heard the book was nominated for some awards so I signed out a copy from my library knowing nothing about it other than the author and title. But then, Yang is an author I already enjoyed. Years earlier I bought his American Born Chinese based on good word-of-mouth. A few years later when I audited a university course on graphic novels, American Born Chinese was one of the textbooks and the professors brought to light a lot of elements from the novel which I hadn't noticed on my own. (Yang's The Shadow Hero was a fun read too; I reviewed it here)

Hoop Dragons is something of a memoir book with Yang as the lead character. He depicts his own unathleticism (which I empathize with) but, while searching for a topic for his next graphic novel, Yang becomes interested in the basketball team at the Catholic high school where he teaches. This 400+ page tome features Yang's investigation of the sport, taking the time to explain the history of basketball while Yang tries to better understand the members of the Dragons and follows them through the year until they enter the state championship game. At the same time, Yang recounts how DC Comics were courting him to write Superman, but he wasn't certain he should take the assignment after hearing DC's editors gleefully describe how 'Superman isn't Superman' anymore.

Even with my lack of athleticism, I've enjoyed plenty of films about sports -- the triumph of the underdog is always a strong subject, whether it's Rocky, Creed, Remember the Titans or Mean Machine. It's amazing how often these 'underdog stories' play out in real life. Perhaps it's a matter of perspective -- the Dragons' lineup includes the single strongest ranked high school player in the nation -- but the book frequently shows the team's failures. Even some of their victories are tarnished as spectators opine the Dragons lack teamwork. But Yang had no idea when he began the book that he would be following them to their eventual victory.

As someone who gave up a career in comics because I thought my permanent position in a school was a much more secure future, I couldn't believe Yang gave up his teaching job to toil in comics. I understand that he felt he had to follow his passions and go 'all in', but man, in comics you have to fight for every paycheque and there is an infinite number of wannabes who want your job. However much teaching pays in the USA, it still has to be better than becoming another disposable DC Comics writer.

Yang's questionable career goals aside, I highly recommend this book! It will probably be best enjoyed by teenagers but you don't have to like basketball in order to fall under the book's spell.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

"You can say it as loud as you like, Ollie. No one cares." The Stringbags review

I recently read The Stringbags by Garth Ennis and P. J. Holden, published by Dead Reckoning earlier this year. This graphic novel brought me a sudden realization: I have not been reading enough Garth Ennis war comics!

It seems virtually every publisher has published at least one of Ennis' war comics: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Aftershock, Rebellion, TKO, Avatar, Dynamite, First Second, Titan... one can only wonder when Boom! or IDW will take the plunge. Dead Reckoning is a fairly new comics publisher working as an imprint for the Naval Institute Press. Many of their publication are centered around naval histories, but they branch out into almost anything in the military. The Stringbags is drawn from the history of the British Navy in World War II.

I had never heard of 'stringbags' before reading this book. As is helpfully explained (and demonstrated), the 'stringbags' were biplanes outfitted with torpedoes to combat enemy battleships. The Stringbags is divided into three chapters, each featuring a three-man 'stringbag' crew consisting of Archie, Ollie and Pops. They're fairly broad characters, but the stories aren't character-driven. I was surprised by how educational this book was -- Ennis frequently indulged in lengthy explanations of the actual battles and what their implications were. In the first chapter he depicts the battle of Taranto (previously unknown to me) and how it demonstrated aircraft carriers were superior to battleships. The second chapter depicts the legendary battle of the Bismarck while the third chapter depicts Operation Fuller, an unsuccessful British naval battle (but Ennis explains how the German victory was ultimately insubtantial).

I wasn't familiar with artist P. J. Holden prior to this book either. Even though I'm not well-versed in the details of military equipment, any artist tackling a realistic war comic has to be. Holden's art is full of details but it isn't mechanical -- the details don't interfere with the plot. It's really fine work, as beautiful as a war comic can be.

Whatever my word may be worth, I do highly recommend The Stringbags and I intend to read more of the Ennis war comics that I've missed.

Monday, September 7, 2020

History of Black Panther is up at Sequart!

My new essay about Christopher Priest's Black Panther is up at Sequart; this one is more informational than most as it details the Black Panther's publishing history prior to Priest's arrival in 1998. Check it out and tell me what you think!

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

My Other 10 Favourite Moments from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

As I stated yesterday, my favourite moment in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- the moment which made me a fan of the program -- was in the season 1 finale, when Fitz confessed his feelings for Simmons at the bottom of the ocean. So here are 10 other moments which I really enjoyed during my marathon sessions of all seven seasons, presented in chronological order:
  1. Coulson explains how S.H.I.E.L.D. must function as vigilantes from the shadows (2x1: "Shadows")
  2. Bobbi takes a bullet for Lance (2x22: "S.O.S.")
  3. Simmons recounts her experiences on the planet Maveth (3x5: "4,772 Hours")
  4. Bobbi and Lance receive "a spy's goodbye" (3x13: "Parting Shot")
  5. Daisy wakes up in the Framework and thinks she's about to be reunited with her boyfriend Lincoln -- but it's Grant Ward (4x15: "Self Control")
  6. Lance Hunter breaks Fitz out of jail (5x5: "Rewind")
  7. Fitz and Simmons are married (5x12: "The Real Deal")
  8. Coulson spends his last days with May (5x22: "The End")
  9. Daisy and Simmons get high on alien drugs while looking for Fitz (6x3: "Fear and Loathing on the Planet of Kitson")
  10. Fitz and Simmons confront all of the issues and trauma in their relationship (6x6: "Inescapable")

Monday, August 31, 2020

"We are not agents of nothing, we are agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that still carries weight!" Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. rundown

I came in late to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series. At the time the program began in 2013 I had quit Marvel and was boycotting all Marvel-related products. I relaxed the boycott a few years later, but during that time I heard a few things about the program. Much of what I heard was negative. The early part of season 1 was roundly criticized as an inept 'sci-fi cop show'. I heard good buzz about the ways in which the show tied in to the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but after that I seldom heard anything about the program.

After I lifted my boycott I started watching the Marvel Netflix shows. Although they started off rather well, at some point (opinions differ as to whether it was Daredevil season 2 or Iron Fist season 1) the line of shows went off the rails. Each season of those programs played like a 13-hour movie, running just one long continuous storyline. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but all too often the shows simply spun their wheels -- hero confronts villain, villain somehow skates off, resolution deferred; supporting character has a very slow subplot that doesn't go anywhere but pays the actors' bills. It also did not feel like the showrunners particularly cared about the super hero genre (unbelieveably, confirmed by Iron Fist's showrunner).

I considered watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from time to time simply as a means of crossing it off a list. I don't enjoy Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool movies, but I've watched them just for the sake of keeping up on Marvel. 7 seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sounded like a lot of tedium. Last month I started watching the series.

I went through those 7 seasons awfully fast; truly, I was hooked. It took a while to really get me -- the Captain America: The Winter Soldier tie-in definitely helped -- but the 1st season came to a very satisfying conclusion. My opinion of the show wavered from time to time -- mostly around mid-season when the plots seemed to be spinning their wheels -- but the performances were always solid and the series rewarded the time I invested in it; every plot came out pretty well. Well, okay, maybe not the Izel plot in season 6, that was pretty much a turkey, but that season's B-plot was pretty good.

I can actually point to a single moment which made me invested in the show -- it's from the season 1 finale, "Beginning of the End." The scientist characters Fitz and Simmons are trapped in a capsule on the bottom of the ocean with little hope of rescue. They fashion a means to escape the capsule but only have enough oxygen in a tank for one of them to reach the surface. As Fitz has broken his arm, he insists Simmons should take the oxygen and save herself. When Simmons protests, Fitz admits that's he in love with her and forces her to use the tank. It leads to an intense scene of Simmons in the ocean, trying to keep an unconscious Fitz's head above water, crying out for help -- when suddenly a helicopter lowers down and Nick Fury reaches out to take her hand. Nothing else in those 7 years landed as hard as that!

As a comics fan, there were some bits I really enjoyed seeing adapted -- their Ghost Rider was astonishingly faithful to the comics; they kept Mr. Hyde as Daisy's father; their Absorbing Man looked great; Glenn Talbot was recurring character; and they had a great 'rogue LMD' plot. Many of the elements from the comics were in-name-only. Like, their Al MacKenzie shares just his name and occupation with the character Bob Harras & Paul Neary created. But it matters very little, since the character they developed was immensely likeable.

Tomorrow I'm going to share a list of my favourite moments from the series. I'm glad I finally checked out this show -- I would now rank it as the best television adaptation of a Marvel Comics property.