Friday, March 28, 2008

What makes a hero?

One of the supplements to the new animated DVD from DC Comics, Justice League: The New Frontier, is a documentary called The Legion of Doom: Pathology of a Super Villain. In it a series of creators past and present sit down to discuss the background of a handful of DC's most infamous villains. Toward the end of the documentary, each creator gives their take on what separates a villain from a hero.

The one answer that stood out to me the most was put forth by Jim Krueger. Jim is probably best known for his work on Justice, the twelve-issue Justice League story he co-wrote with Alex Ross. When asked what differentiates a villain from a hero Krueger said: The villain wants to be the hero, but can't. The hero doesn't want to be the hero but knows they have to.

I found this interesting because its an argument I don't hear all that often. A hero, especially in comics, usually has a certain gift or ability that the vast majority of citizens do not possess. This ability can be something as incredible as a super power, or something as simple as a strong desire to help those who can not help themselves (in the real world we call these people police officers, firefighters, and members of the armed forces). This "power" affords them the opportunity to do great things that others either can not do, or choose not to do, often putting themselves in harm's way. A hero knows that by taking up this mantle they are placing themselves at great risk, all the while carrying a very heavy burden on their shoulders, the fate and well-being of mankind. This is not a responsibility most clear thinking men and women would want to take on willingly. What if you screw up? How many people will suffer because of your failure? Can you be everywhere you are needed when you need to be there? Will you ever be too afraid to act in time? These are serious questions. Questions that would send most people fleeing for the hills. But not a hero. They stand and fight because they know that even in the face of all these questions and all this danger, they are the ones who can truly answer the call.

I was reminded of Krueger's comment, and the concept of what makes a hero, while reading issue #31 of Red Sonja from Dynamite Entertainment. In this issue, Sonja is being ferried down the River Styx on her way to the Underworld. While on the trip, the ferryman is showing her moments in her life in an effort to judge whether or not her actions have been just. This particular issue focuses on a time in Sonja's life when she served as bodyguard to a King. When the issue begins Sonja aids King Teran and his people in holding off an invasion. Once the battle is complete, Teran, so enamored with Sonja as a woman and a warrior, proposes marriage. Sonja, believing her life should be devoted exclusively towards her duties as a warrior, declines. The King understands and lets her be, believing that as time progresses she will change her mind.

Teran's beliefs are correct, and as the story progresses Sonja realizes that she is in fact falling in love with him. During a sparring session Sonja tells him that she vowed to never marry unless the man could best her in combat. The reason being, once she casts aside her role as a warrior, the powers granted to her will disappear and there will be no going back. Knowing that Teran can not be her equal, she rejects his proposal once again. In the end, her love for him is too much to overcome and she goes to his bedchamber to finally accept. Just as she awakens him, Teran's palace is attacked by a wizard-king and his minions. During the fight Teran is almost killed, but Sonja saves his life yet again and the enemy escapes fearing for his life. At this moment, Sonja comes to an important realization.

Had she given up her life as a warrior and married Teran when he asked initially, he would have been killed that night because she would have been unable to protect him. Not only would Teran have died, but his people would have been murdered and enslaved. She wants a normal life living as Teran's queen, but she knows that her duty lies elsewhere. She doesn't want to be the hero but she knows she has to. Sonja leaves Teran telling him that she will not return. When the story returns to the present the ferryman tells her that Teran eventually married and raised a family. Sonja, noticeably saddened by this information, is told by the ferryman that she did the right thing. The ferryman forgot the most important detail. She did the heroic thing.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Review: Super Friends #1

I didn't read comic books a child. Well, I didn't read comics consistently. From time to time my mother would buy me certain books that I picked out while at a newsstand or at the bookstore, but I never bought issues week to week or followed story arcs on a monthly basis the way I do now. My initial exposure to superheroes came in the form of the animated series Super Friends.

In 1973, Hanna-Barabara produced the series based on DC Comics Justice League. When the show first aired, it featured Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. Over the series run, additional characters appeared as guest stars such as Plastic Man, the Flash, and Green Arrow, just to name a few.

Unlike the animated series which have come after, such as Batman the Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, which have a more mature tone, Super Friends was geared exclusively towards children. The plot lines were simple, the dialogue was humorous, and each episode stressed the importance of teamwork and good triumphing over evil. When watching these shows now its difficult not to laugh and tease oneself about how at one time we thought these shows were the coolest we've ever seen. But, in an era of morally ambiguous superheroes, and a blurred line between right and wrong, Super Friends harkens back to a time of moral certainty among its heroes. A concept foreign to superhero stories today.

Although the show has been off the air for just over 20 years, DC has recently shown us that the series may be gone but not forgotten. This past week, DC released a new monthly series based on the old television show and the highly popular action figure line that followed. Following in its predecessor's footsteps, Issue 1 is simple, offering a plot that children can easily follow and understand. The main villain is a man named Professor Ivo. He is, as almost all villains are, a scientific genius. He has created hundreds of different inventions over the years but nothing he creates garners any media attention or accolades because the press, and the public at large, are always focused on the Justice League and their exploits. Ivo wants to be famous. In an effort to gain the notoriety he believes he so richly deserves, he creates an android by the name of Amazo (clever, huh?) to defeat the Super Friends for good so they can no longer steal his limelight.

Amazo turns out to be more than just an android. He is programmed to possess all the powers of each member of the Justice League, and he is instructed to use their powers against them. Seemingly defeated, the Super Friends must ban together as a team to defeat an enemy too powerful for any one member to handle. I won't spoil the ending, however I will say that the solution to the Friend's problem is also a life lesson for kids to keep them safe in the future. Think of it as a "knowing is half the battle" type ending for all you G.I. Joe fans out there.

Super Friends is a great jumping on point for children to be introduced to the heroes of the DC Universe without being turned away by the decades worth of continuity plaguing the mainstream titles. Parents should run to the store to pick this up. It's fun, it has interactive puzzles to get the kids involved in the story, and it will get them reading. Something all kids could do a lot more of.

4 stars out of 5!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight: #6

I didn’t begin watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television until Season 3. I saw the movie in the theater and enjoyed it in a campy sort of way. When I heard it was going to become an ongoing television series, I rolled my eyes as I remembered the many failed attempts network executives made in the past when trying to bring serialized versions of successful films to the small screen. So naturally I stayed away from the pilot episode and those that followed.

My father watched the series from day one, and was a loyal fan until the day the show went off the air. He introduced me to the Buffyverse, and, I have to admit, I fell in love with it. Everything about the show worked for me. The stories were engrossing, the characters larger-than-life, and I actually found myself caring about each character and the situations they found themselves in. Buffy was, quite simply, the most well-written show at the time. It is no wonder that the show has garnered such a devoted fan following.

Although I felt the show’s quality started to wane towards the last season and a half, I was sad to see it go. I always wished Joss Whedon would return the show to greatness. When I first heard the idea of a Season 8 comic, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Would it translate well in comic form? Would it be as engrossing? At first, the answer for me was a resounding no. I wasn’t as drawn to the book as I was the show. The dialogue felt flat, and appeared a tad childish at times. It felt as though the whole gang was stuck in high school, when in actuality they hadn’t been enrolled at Sunnydale High for some time. I bought every issue even though I had trouble justifying it at the time. Whedon’s run didn’t produce results for me until issue #5, the last of his writing duties. With Whedon off, and Brian K. Vaughan on, I knew it wasn’t time to drop the title just yet. I wanted to see if a new writer could reinvigorate the series for me. Thankfully, Vaughan did just that.

Issue #6 centers around Faith, the anti-hero who was the third slayer to appear on the series. Faith always had a bit of a dark side. Being the second best to Buffy never sat well with her. Unlike Buffy, and many of the other slayers under Buffy’s tutelage, Faith has always had a penchant for violence and, more importantly, killing. On the show, she even suggested that killing provided her with a drug-like high, causing her to experience withdrawal when she is unable to inflict pain on another human or demon. Because of her affinity for the rough stuff, Faith is often called upon to handle the “dirty work”: the tasks no one else has the stomach for. It is her perceived indifference to these tasks that garners her a visit from Giles. He has an assignment that only Faith can complete.

Lady Geneveve Savidge is one of the wealthiest heiresses in Britain. She is also an apocalyptic threat, or at least that is the feeling Giles has. Needless to say, Lady Geneveve is too far gone for simple rehabilitation. She needs to be neutralized. And only Faith can do it. But in order to get near her, Faith must pass as a member of the British upper class, forcing Giles to train the slayer in the art of etiquette, diction and the arts; a formidable task for those familiar with Faith as a character.

The story is intriguing and shows real promise. Vaughan appears to understand the characters’ histories and motivations, and writes them just as well as, if not better then, Whedon himself. My only problem with this issue, and the series more specifically, is the lackluster pencils. Jeanty’s art makes for some hideous panels at times, and not only does his characters not resemble the actors they are based on, at times they barely resemble human beings. Thankfully the writing works because this book is not much to look at. Hopefully, this will improve as the story continues. If not, it’s time to bring on another artist to improve the art much the same way as a new writer improved the story.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight #6
“No Future for You: Part 1”
Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencilled by: Georges Jeanty
Inked by: Andy Owens
Colored by: Dave Stewart
Lettered by: Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy
Cover by: Jo Chen

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Mice Templar #1

The comic book industry is no stranger to delays, and this trend appears to be more common now than ever before. Many factors play a role in why creators are unable to get books on the shelves when originally solicited. But no matter what the circumstances, most will tell you it all comes down to their schedule. The busier they get, and the more projects they take on, the more likely their books will come out late. No one understands this more than Michael Avon Oeming.

Oeming is fast becoming one of the most prolific writers and artists in comics. He has penned such titles as Thor, Ares, Cross Bronx, the new Omega Flight, and he is currently writing the very popular Red Sonja. In addition to his writing credits, Oeming has found time to pencil a few titles, most notably the creator-owned Powers, written by Brian Michael Bendis. With a workload like this, it’s a wonder any of his books come out on time. There is one project, however, that Oeming never thought would make its way into the stores, The Mice Templar.

The story revolves around a society of anthropomorphic mice, while the first issue focuses primarily on one young mouse, Karik. Karik lives in a small tree village with his family. He is obsessed with the legendary tales of the Mice Templar, warrior nights of the past who disappeared from the world shortly after a civil war raged among the heroic mice. Their story has been passed down through the ages, and the young mice of the village often pretend to be the very heroes whose stories they have been told by the local elders. Without giving too much away, the village is suddenly attacked by a band of rats looking for remaining members of the Mice Templar. This sudden invasion turns the village upside down and provides Karik with the opportunity to become the hero he always dreamed of. But at what cost?

The idea for this story dates back to the early 1990s through a series of Oeming’s sketches. These were followed by a short story he drafted in 1998. Over the years, the mythology of the Mice Templar, and the world they inhabit, was further expanded upon by Oeming’s long-time friend, Bryan J.L. Glass. What started as a six-issue outline quickly grew to an epic tale of a fallen culture and its eventual rebirth. With so much time and energy spent on creating the Templar history, coupled with Oeming’s workload, The Mice Templar sat idle for well over 15 years. It’s almost cliche to say it was worth the wait, but after reading the first issue, there are no words more fitting.

With this book, Oeming and Glass illustrate a very important point about writers and artists in the field of comics. When working on their own projects, these creators shine brighter, and publish work more inspired, than anything they have done with the iconic heroes of the “big two.” You see this with Kirkman and The Walking Dead, and more importantly, Brubaker with Criminal. The first issue leaves the reader with a few unanswered questions, but that only leaves you wanting more. The history of the Templar is explained in the book’s first few pages, and the rest of the 56-page issue plunges you into the brutal world of a society fighting for its own survival. The art is incredible, and Oeming does not shy away from illustrating the harsh realities of war. Where Mouse Guard seemed to avoid depicting violence as it exists in the real world, Templar approaches this head on. The only problem with the art is the difficulty in telling one mouse from the other. Hopefully this will become less of an issue in future books.

In the end, Oeming and Glass can sit back and feel a sense of accomplishment as a book they worked so tirelessly on has finally made its way into the hands of readers and did not disappoint. I can’t wait to see this story develop over the upcoming issues. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story with strong character development and plenty of surprises. Pick this up if you can find it!! This book is going to fly off the shelves.

The Mice Templar #1
Written by: Bryan J.L. Glass & Michael Avon Oeming
Pencilled by: Michael Avon Oeming
Colored by: Wil Quintana