Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What I'm Reading

Though I’ve cut back a lot, I still buy more comics than I read (old habits die hard). But here are a few that I’m currently reading....

Batman and Robin
One reason I don’t read as many mainstream comics as I used to is because most series are tied in to large, epic continuities that often encompass multiple issues and titles. This makes it difficult for casual readers to just jump into a random comic-book issue.

Though the new Batman and Robin series by writer Grant Morrison (and various artists) is tied in to one such ongoing storyline, I’ve still found the stories entertaining on their own without feeling lost even though I'm not reading the other tie-in titles.

In the current Batman continuity that also encompasses DC Comics' entire line of titles, Bruce Wayne is believed to have been killed—though it's become clear that he actually got sent back in time and is now making his way back to the present. As a result, the series features Bruce’s old ward and Robin sidekick, Dick Grayson, as Batman. The shoes of Robin are being filled by a young upstart named Damian Wayne, Bruce’s bastard son (in more ways than one). Damien is Batman's offspring with the daughter of one of his greatest arch enemies, Ra’s al Ghul (don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

What makes the series intriguing to me is the different vibe that Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne bring as Batman and Robin. Grayson has never been as Machiavellian and obsessed as his mentor—and knows it—while Damien is a true handful, trying to reconcile his father’s principles with the callous brutality that has been ingrained in him since birth as the grandson of one of the world’s great villains.

But what initially drew me to the series was the art of Frank Quitely. At first glance, Quitely’s art is less operatic and flashy than more traditional superhero comic book artists, but his work always still creates a sense of quiet awe. (This was especially evident in his work on All Star Superman.) Quitely unfortunately left the series after only a few issues, and though I felt the art suffered initially, the current artist at least has not been as much of a distraction to the stories. So for now, this series remains one of the few regular ones I am reading.

Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne
This mini-series is related to the larger story arc mentioned above—initially believed killed in DC Comics’ year-long saga Final Crisis, Batman’s fellow superheroes have learned that their friend instead has been sent back in time. The six-issue series recounts his travel through time to the present. Three issues have been released to date, with the first issue taking place in the Paleolithic Era, the second in the Pilgrim era of what is to become Gotham City, and the third in the American West (co-starring Jonah Hex).

While Grant has said his work on series like this one and Batman and Robin are part of a larger epic he has been working on since 2005, the Return of Bruce Wayne is an opportunity for Morrison to play in different genres while also advancing the larger storyline. Since this series was a major “event” story for the character, I decided to pick it up.

The different genres gives Grant the opportunity to also work with a variety of artists. Again, this was hit and miss for me, but the limited run of the series generally makes this an easy investment to make to see how things play out.

Batman: Odyssey
(Yes, I realize that these titles are all Batman-heavy. I am a Batman fan, but this is just how things turned out!)

Batman: Odyssey is the heralded return to the character by legendary artist Neal Adams. Along with writer Denny O’Neil, Adams is credited with bringing Batman back definitively to his dark and gritty roots at the end of the 1960s after nearly two decades of camp, which culminated with the hit Batman television show starring Adam West.

I’ve seen one reviewer refer to this book as a “train wreck.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that assessment is too off the mark. Adams clearly has been given great latitude given his reputation and name; while Adams, for the most part, is still at the top of his game as an artist, the writing could have done with some extensive editing. It’s a bit shrill and trying too hard to be modern, and it’s unclear what Adams is trying to do here.

Since this is a 12-issue series, I’ll likely stick this one out to see where this goes—it is Adams after all!

Our Army at War One Shot

As I’ve said elsewhere, Sgt. Rock, who appeared in the original run of Our Army at War, is one of my favorite characters, and Our Army at War was the first comic-book series I collected regularly back in the 1970s.

Though Our Army at War ended in 1977, Sgt. Rock has remained active through various projects and series, including this one-shot special.

The story interweaves Sgt. Rock and Easy Company in their World War II milieu with a modern-day war story set in Iraq. The two stories are told in parallel—jumping back and forth frequently—and at the end are neatly tied together. In truth, Rock is a bit peripheral to the story.

My main quibble about most of these recent Sgt. Rock projects are that the character is drawn differently than the definitive look that was given the character by long-time Rock artist and comic-book great Joe Kubert. While I recognize that the character will look different under different artists, it doesn’t even appear that some artists are trying to stay on design.

Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans, and Friends
Released in 2009 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the San Diego Comic-Con, I picked this up at this handsome coffee table hardcover book at the show the year it came out.

It’s well done, presenting a definitive history of the Comic-Con through the decades, with plenty of fun sidebar articles about some of the people, artists, and activities that have contributed to the success and feel of the show, with tons of photos. The story of Comic-Con encompasses as well the history of modern comic-book fandom.

Having attended the show myself for about 25 years, it’s a wonderful reminiscence for me as well—and also makes me realize that had I started attending just a few years earlier, I could have met some of my idols, like Milton Caniff. D’OH!

This is a book I’ve been reading periodically since I picked it up and it’s always a fun and fascinating read.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In Comic Book Stores Now!

From the WCG Comics website:
Rob Hanes Adventures, Vol. 0, the first volume of a projected series of trade paperbacks collecting the entire Rob Hanes Adventures series is in direct-sales comic-book retail stores now. Retailers can still order this item through Diamond Comics Distributors (item #JUL10 1161). Also available through Haven Distributors. (ISBN #978-0-9845769-0-6)

Rob Hanes Adventures, Volume 0 compiles the complete 4-issue run of Adventure Strip Digest, the series' original home before being relaunched as Rob Hanes Adventures.

A preview of the front and back covers plus about 20 pages is available here (or by clicking the image at right).

To bring the quality of the art and stories up to par with the current series, the stories in the volume have been completely re-lettered by Johnny Lowe, replacing the original hand-lettering of the original stories.

The volume is 144 pages with a cover price of $15.99. For the official press release, click here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

REVIEWS: Le Concert

I admit that what initially interested me in the French language film Le Concert was the fact that it starred Melanie Laurent, a lovely French actress who caught my eye as one of the leads in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II send up, Inglorious Basterds. Rarely, though, do I let an actress’s personal appeal drive my choice in movies—if word’s out that a movie is a dog, I won’t go see it no matter how personally appealing the cast.

Fortunately, reviews of this limited release foreign language art house film ranged from middling to good, and many cited Laurent’s presence as reason enough to enjoy the film if one was so inclined.

So discovering it was playing locally, I slipped out on a recent weekday evening to catch the film in a tiny theater at L.A.’s Landmark that featured reserved plush sofas rather than traditional theater seating. Though only five people (including myself) were in the theater, we were a responsive audience, which added to the enjoyment of the intimate viewing.

The film is a light comedy farce with some emotional heft thrown in to engage the audience. The story gets started quickly, when a once-respected Russian conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra named Andre├» Filipov (played by Aleksei Guskov)—fired 30 years earlier by the Communist regime for political reasons who is now working as a janitor at the theater—intercepts an invitation to the orchestra to perform in Paris. Seeing it as an opportunity to resurrect his career, Filipov decides to reconstitute the original orchestra that had been banished along with him 30 years earlier and travel to Paris masquerading as the Bolshoi.

Soon Filipov is combing the country, tracking down the former members of the orchestra who now live hand to mouth at other jobs. He also recruits an old adversary from the Communist era who was their booking agent to manage them again.

BELOW: Le Concert preview trailer.

As the film progresses, the film gradually reveals that Filipov has an underlying motive for wishing to travel to Paris and perform, which is related to his insistence that a new young talented French violinist named Anne-Marie Jacquet (played by Laurent) solo with the orchestra. As this suggests, the stakes of the performance go beyond just providing an opportunity for Guskov and the others to reclaim their careers—the once nearly-broken conductor also is haunted by an old Cold War secret (shared by some of his colleagues) that is hinted at throughout the movie and, with some minor misdirection, revealed near the end of the movie with emotional resonance during the film's titular concert.

The concert of the title climaxes the story and forms the film's centerpiece, in which a Tchaikovky concerto is performed in its entirety. It is here that the film cleverly brings its loose ends together and provides an emotional payoff. It does so through the deft use of flashback montages, interwoven with the concert, revealing a backstory that inextricably ties the French violinist to the conductor and, indeed, the entire orchestra. A series of flashforward montages are also used to show what happens after the concert. The movie finally circles back to the end of the performance, with the stirring concerto underscoring the emotional release that the performers (along with the audience) undergo at the end of the piece.

What initially surprised me about the film was how much of it took place in Russia: the first third of the movie was filmed on location there—with some marvelous shots of present-day Moscow—and many of the principal actors are Russian, presumably speaking in their native tongue.

Directed by Romanian-born Radu Mihaileanu, who emigrated to France from his native-born country as a student, much of the film’s humor comes from the contrast between the bright, modern world of Paris and the more earthy Russian musicians, who have not recovered from their years of persecution and internal exile under Communist rule. (One running gag involves the orchestra’s manager—still a die hard Communist and out of the game for 30 years—insisting on terms that are clearly archaic and anachronistic. On the other hand, he also sagely advises them that it’s expected for them as musicians to be difficult and obstinate.)

Though a few minor characters are clearly there for comedy relief, the principal actors give sensitive and lovely performances, particularly Guskov and Laurent, the latter of whom apparently trained for several months to credibly play violin for the film. Reviewers have noted that the film has its share of contrivances. The one that stretched my credibility the most was the the fact that, due to a series of misadventures, the reconstituted orchestra never has a chance to rehearse before the actual concert, after 30 years of not performing together—though the director clearly wanted to use this to add tension to the story, one must wonder whether this is even possible. But overall the film overcomes these minor distractions on the fairy-tale like story that is punctuated by a wonderful concert performance.