One of us: a review of Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2

Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2 preview

The latest installment of Superman: Earth One comes out next month. I didn’t find time to review the first volume (which came out two years ago) for my blog, but you can read my thoughts on it here. Or, if you’d rather skip to the good stuff, trust me when I say that the quality of Vol. 1 and 2 are the same: awesome.

Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2 by J. Michael Straczynski (writer),  Shane Davis (penciller), Sandra Hope (inker), and Barbara Ciardo (colorist)

Leave it to one of the best modern writers in comics to make Superman relevant again. The second volume of Earth One (on sale October 31 in comic shops and November 6 in bookstores) is a literal investigation into the man and legend: his personal life and why he refuses to let anyone get too close, his work persona and how he makes himself appear to the public, and also his budding career as the Man of Steel — whom the U.S. government is studying in case the world’s alien miracle ever turns on them.

As Clark Kent grapples with maintaining these identities, so does he struggle to find peace among them. The beautiful girl in the apartment next door wants to seduce him, but he won’t allow it: The risk of hurting her is too great. And as an up-and-coming reporter, he’s still learning how to balance hard journalism with the compassion that drives his stories. He finds similar conflict in his doings as Superman. This book tests his abilities to both help people and do what’s right for them; sometimes those two things can’t always be reconciled.

And to stop his newest enemy, the Parasite, who drains him of his energy and powers, Superman must walk as a mortal — helpless to the greater forces working against humanity. The experience is humbling, and it gives him a reason to fight harder. The world needs someone who can make it feel safe, even if it’s not.

Just as Superman is an alien in a human visage, the Parasite is a human in monster’s form. We see this kind of parallel of unbridled rage and strength in both characters, but it’s Superman who prevails: Not because he isn’t tempted to loose control, but because he is afraid to. That concern for the well-being of the people around him is what makes him a hero — and able to carry on where Parasite fails. At the same time, it cripples him, isolating him from the people he saves when he’s not wearing the suit. He keeps people at a distance, terrified that they’ll discover his secrets or come to harm because of them. These difficulties will continue to be a major part of Clark’s development as a superhero and as a person, and Straczynski ends the book with a sense of the growth ahead of him.

Shane Davis (the comic’s penciller) deserves accolades, too, for showing us the many conflicting sides of Superman: the vulnerable young boy, struggling in a world that can never truly accept him; the timid reporter and tenant, who keeps to himself to prevent others from learning the truth; and the dangerous, confident hero, carving his place in a world that needs him.

Straczynski ends the volume with uncertainties: two new figures are about to enter Superman’s life, and we already recognize their last names. But their roles are different — reversed from what we expect them to be. That air of mystery is what makes the book so irresistible. This is the Superman we know, but it feels like we’re only just starting to understand him.

Bottom line: The Superman you’ve wanted for years.

Grade: B+

July’s comic book pick of the month: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

If you read my open call for comics back in April, then you know I’ll be spotlighting current comic book series (in addition to my graphic novel reviews) every month or so to inspire discussion. I’m also taking requests, so please — leave a comment or drop me an email!

The ’80s are still alive, baby! New to DC Comics, HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE #1 is a blast from your childhood past.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my mail and found a radiantly glowing HE-MAN comic book hiding in my pile of new issues. And by writer James Robinson, no less! Do you know who that is? He’s only one of the coolest writers ever — he modernized STARMAN and turned it into one of my favorite long-running series. So good.

Aside from the gorgeous cover by Philip Tan and Dave Wilkins (a great eye-catcher), the first issue brings back the classic cartoon in style. Look past the first page, which poses He-Man in an awkward running stance, and you’ll fall in love with Philip Tan’s art and Richard and Tanya Horie’s and Carrie Strachan’s colors (on their respective pages).

He-Man won’t be shouting “I have the power!” anytime soon — at least not in this issue. Adam is a woodsman, “and that is all.” He dreams of swords and beasts and heroes, but when he wakes he’s back in the forest, chopping wood and caring for his senile father, who thinks he lives in a royal palace. Whatever reality has become for Adam and those around him, it’s not the stuff of legend. Robinson has given the comic a kind of FABLES vibe.

But the world is trying to make him remember. First a blue and orange falcon — Zoar. Then a monster that confronts him as soon as he leaves his home. His axe becomes a weapon; the woods his battle ground.

It might be different, but the comic still feels like the classic tale. The scene at the end, where Skeletor says “Adam must be stopped, and quickly!” is reminiscent of the cheesy kids’ cartoon. Robinson’s HE-MAN feels like a bridge between two eras … and I hope it’s here to stay for more than just six issues.

Happy 30th anniversary, He-Man.

HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE #1 (by writer James Robinson and penciller Philip Tan) hits stands Wednesday, July 4.

Deaths in the family: reviews of Identity Crisis and Batman: The Court of Owls

I read two great graphic novels recently. Both deal with death and new beginnings.

Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer (writer), Rags Morales (penciller), and Michael Bair (inker)

Few comics can take a story about a superhero group and make it about a superhero family. Identity Crisis, which appeared in 2004, boiled the Justice League down to its most human, setting the powers aside. When the spouse of a League member is murdered, everyone, both heroes and villains, are in danger of falling apart. They cry and they fight, violently in the streets, both together and in opposition.

Writer Brad Meltzer is very good at taking larger-than-life characters and making them small, in more ways than one. The whole murder mystery, which picks off the JLA’s loved ones at random and without mercy, undeniably kicks them when they’re down, and Rags Morales shows us these characters at their most vulnerable — creating a picture of raw emotion, not always pretty. The Elongated Man nearly loses his form. Robin sobs, only just a boy.

Identity Crisis has many meanings, but it comes down to two things: First, finding yourself when all is lost and taken from you, and second, learning your role within a family. These superheros and super villains alike are families. They know the mask doesn’t protect them, but rather the people they care about, and when tragedy strikes, they help one another. The events of Identity Crisis do a lot to threaten that bond, but somehow, they persevere. They take care of their own, for better or worse. They hear and see what they want to, to keep peace among their numbers. They make sacrifices. They lose on both sides, and then win by surviving hardship.

The twist — the person holding the smoking gun in the end — was a little silly, but it’s more a vehicle to telling this story than the crux of it. If you can look past that part, then Identity Crisis is the perfect glimpse into the daily lives of superheroes and their foes, both the ones that are costumed and those that lie within us all.

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (penciller)

When you start a character and his universe from scratch, to make him stand out from his peers in an initiative like the “New 52,” you have to think big. More specifically, you have to build his city grander than before, cast his shadow longer, and give him a foe unlike any other he’s ever faced.

The Court of Owls is the perfect new beginning for Gotham’s watchful guardian because it challenges his right to that title. There are some secrets, it seems, that even Batman doesn’t know. He, the master of stealth and disguise, has been fooled by those who’ve hidden in darkness far longer: a secret society that dates back to his great, great grandfather, Alan Wayne.

Bruce wants to construct “a better, brighter Gotham” — but to do so, Batman must sink into unknown depths, both literally and metaphorically. When the Court of Owls trap him, a feat accomplished by only the fiercest foes, Batman degenerates in look, in health — horribly, like a monster, thanks to the artistic talent of Greg Capullo. What appeared to be another costumed wannabe, a fanatic with too much time on his hands, turned out to be a deadly threat and, yet, only a pawn — and thus starts the new chapter of evil in Gotham. The Court of Owls is only the preface to the story, and a dark omen to the darker days that lie ahead — a living challenge to the brighter world Bruce Wayne hopes to achieve.

Picking a freak at random is easy, but Scott Snyder tricks us into thinking any lunatic in mask and suit is a warm-up compared to the classic villains — that only the Joker and other timeless rogues like him can do harm. It’s not long before he shows us otherwise — that the new can be as powerful as the old, and that sometimes, they’re one in the same.

An excellent precursor to the new age of Batman.

Reading the game: who else loves Uncharted?

Recently I finished playing Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (see my review). I adore the series and will be sad to see it go as Naughty Dog continues work on The Last of Us for Sony. At least there’s Golden Abyss for the PlayStation Vita, so whenever I can afford the handheld (money, as they say, does not grow on trees, Sony), I’ll knock that off my list first.

Below are four great books for my fellow Uncharted lovers. Have you read any of these?

Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth by Christopher Golden
Del Rey
336 pages
Publication Date:
October 4, 2011

After his old archeologist friend is found murdered in Manhattan, Sully convinces Drake to globe-trot from New York to Egypt and Greece in search of three lost labyrinths—and a fourth that promises power and riches, of course.

I looked up Chris Golden, and while he’s not a popular author, his books have solid ratings across the board. All four stars and up on Amazon. The most reviews came from Of Saints and Shadows and the Body of Evidence thriller series (from 1999 and out of print). Video game stories rarely translate well across mediums, so I doubt this is written extraordinarily well, but since Uncharted structures its narratives more like movies … well, who knows. Might be decent.

The Art of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves by Daniel P. Wade
Publisher: Ballistic Publishing
Paperback: 272 pages
Publication Date: July 1, 2010

This one’s self-explanatory: It’s an art book, a complement to the video game Uncharted 2. Inside is concept art for the characters, environments, cinematics, etc. Amazon lists it for a pricey $45. The editor, Daniel P. Wade, has overseen production on other art books, such as The Art of God of War III.

Uncharted by Joshua Williamson (writer) and Sergio Sandoval (artist)
Publisher: DC Comics
Paperback: 144 pages
Publication Date: July 17, 2012

You’ll have to wait awhile for the collected version of the UNCHARTED comic book series from DC Comics. Amazon mistakenly names Tony Harris as the illustrator—he’s only the cover artist. Sergio Sandoval (HUMAN TARGET, DEUS EX) provided the interior artwork for the book, with Joshua Williamson (XENOHOLICS, DEAR DRACULA) writing. Six issues are contained in the trade, and the two reviews I could find (both on IGN) gave the comic moderately high scores.

UNCHARTED: Drake’s Journal – Inside the Making of UNCHARTED 3: DRAKE’S DECEPTION by Nolan North
Publisher: GameSpheres
Paperback: 128 pages
Publication Date: November 1, 2011

Nolan North (aka Nathan Drake) is one of my all-time favorite voice actors, and a lot of other people like him, too. So it was disappointing to learn that his own account on working on the video game series, a book entitled UNCHARTED: Drake’s Journal, is no longer in print.

According to the publisher’s website, only 500 first edition, signed hardback copies of the book were distributed. The only way to get a new copy is to buy the iPhone/iPad app for $4 … but of course, it’s not one of the signed and numbered few. Neither are the ones GameSpheres is selling on Amazon in “new” condition. The cheapest ones (from the exclusive 500 shipment) are available used for $70. Sigh. WANT.

Also, the back cover features joke pull quotes from the game’s cast, and they’re hilarious and true to character:

“This is the best goddamn book out there. I keep mine by the toilet.” – Victor Sullivan

“It’s not a proper book. It’s full of pictures.” – Charlie Cutter

“What’s wrong with pictures? I like pictures.” – Chloe Frazer

“Who the hell is Nolan North?” – Nathan Drake