Tag Archives: comics

Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: OvertureThe Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was the Dream of the first created things: those that sleep in the sleep beneath space.

Neil Gaiman is the Sandman, can we all agree on that? In as much as the character has created him and he has created the character, Morpheus—he of the brooding visage and the black shirts—is in some sense certainly Gaiman’s idealization of aspects of himself. And it’s also true that Gaiman gets to create the world of Dreaming, gets to guard and define it, just as the Sandman does. It’s a narrative artistry that works here. On the canvas of a comic embellished with incredible artistry, Gaiman’s strength in creating idealizations of form and dialogue is untouchable. Lines like the one above float on pages of color and wonder. They are, I think, much harder to carry off in a novel.

They say every story must be told at least once, before the final nightfall.

As a kid I loved Marvel’s Infinity War, in which cosmic forces like Order, Chaos, and Infinity went to war in full color spreads across the panels. This is more or less what we get in Sandman: Overture, a six-issue collection that is faster and more epic but with less subtly and texture than was developed in the full seventy-five issues of the Sandman series itself. Of course, this prequel lacks the scope of the entire series, but it also plays for higher stakes. Gaiman was relatively unknown at the start of his run in Sandman; now he’s a legend returning to his homeland.

These stakes are reflected in the narrative: Dream has to save reality itself. Yet the collection of powers at play here teeters on the baroque: the enigmatic First Circle (should I know who they are?), Dream’s parents, the Endless themselves, and the potential death of the universe. I read the original Sandman series years ago, so this straightforward read was more for the epic wonder and beauty of the thing; a closer reading would probably bring to light all the nooks and crannies Gaiman has filled into the texture of the original Sandman. Even the lapsed fan though can appreciate finally learning how Dream came to be captured at the very beginning of the series.

Dream attempts to save the universe, with the help of a little girl named Hope. Trite? A bit, if it wasn’t so gorgeous. Only Gaiman, aided and abetted by the overwhelming artistic genius of J. H. Williams III, can get away with lines like this, Dream explaining his situation to his mother:

I was expelled from the universe, by stars caught up with rhetoric and infection. I’m currently inside a black hole.

Does it work? Of course it does; it’s Gaiman. But it works because Gaiman gets to make his own rules. In a story that deals with embodiments of psychic principles projected on a cosmic scale, you don’t have to worry about self-consistency. Not matter what finality with which Dream is cast into a black hole at the end of one chapter, his mother can stop by for a chat and his brother can tug him out with relative ease a few pages later. How did the ship get into Destiny’s garden? The simple answer is magic, and it’s the magic bleeding off the pages of this work that makes it all right.

There is (of course) a dreamlike quality to the whole thing. It hangs together while you’re reading it but upon waking the logic starts to unravel and—like a dream—you’re left with only memories and images of beauty.

Which is probably the point.

The Incal

The IncalThe Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a good Christmas this year. Among other things, I found beneath the tree a book sometimes said to be the greatest comic ever written, The Incal. I don’t know about that, but it does seem a sort of Citizen Kane of science fiction graphic novels. It’s written by Jodorowsky with art by Moebius, both of whom are names that loom large in the background of lots of science fiction whether or not you’ve actually heard of them. The comic was originally published in the 1980s in French and is supposed to have been pivotal in defining the scope and possibility of the medium for doing epic, genre-bending science fiction. Jodorowsky was at one point working on an screen adaptation of Dune (late 1970s, prior to the David Lynch version) and though abandoned you can see the influences here. Moebius went on to do art and storyboards for things like Tron, Aliens, and The Fifth Element, which is why much of The Incal seems eerily familiar. It was a test bed for much of what defined scifi for the next decade.

As far as narrative goes though, the bones are bare. We’re abruptly dropped into the life and mishaps of John DiFool, a rumpled, selfish, slovenly private investigator, who stumbles upon a powerful conscious entity/artifact called the Incal and who quickly becomes the target of random groups and forces angling to get their hands on it. Characters are introduced just as abruptly as well, without any real backgrounding or development: evil swamp queen, superhuman bounty hunter, dog-headed marauder, and topless animistic love interest. Dialog is clunky, with characters frequently explaining themselves, their feelings, and their motivations. Like Citizen Kane, looking back on it now it seems pretty wooden.

But in the midst this Jodorowsky spins out a dizzying, fractal-like story that spans multiple galaxies and ranges from slum planets (with loads of social satire) to the gold-encrusted galactic capital to watery prison worlds and beyond. Even though the first half of the book is basically one long chase scene and the second a lot of random things happening in quick succession, each thing is brilliantly new, fusing fantasy, science fiction, and mysticism (the main characters are supposed to each embody characters or aspects from the Tarot), making it a worthy read.

It’s the art of Moebius though that marks this a classic. Jodorowsky’s writing is haphazard and exuberant, but he doesn’t provide any depth of character or real explanations of plot. The only revelations that come in the book are in the shattering, full-page vistas by Moebius. What could in prose be a run-of-the-mill deus ex machina, for instance, becomes in this medium a gorgeous and sublime epiphany.

Moebius’s art is multi-form and morphic. It’s gritty when necessary, cartoonish when appropriate, and epic, sweeping, or detailed as needed. Packed crowd scenes feel almost Where’s Waldo-esque, aspects of the Great Darkness foreshadow the segmented horrors of Aliens, and the detailed techno panels feel familiar from classic Star Wars story boards or concept sketches. Overlaid with this all, the colors are sharp and vivid, making the whole sweeping dream-like tableau electric and lively. It’s easy to see why this was groundbreaking at the time (and scandalous, considering some scenes made it originally censored in its first US release) .

The edition of the work I found under the Christmas tree is packaged in hardcover with high-quality printing that I can only imagine helps recapture what it must have originally felt like reading it. With that and the added touch of a ribbon bookmark, the outside of The Incal feels as weighty and significant and the interior is trippy and avante garde, like you’re holding a piece of visual and literary science fiction history (as you are).

Transformers: More than Meets the Eye Volume 8

mtmte7Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye, Volume 8 by James Roberts
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With great excellence comes great expectations. If you’ve followed my book reviews for long, you know that I’m a huge fan of the work of James Roberts and Alex Milne on the ongoing IDW Transformers: More than Meets the Eye series. The release of each trade paperback is a Pretty Big Deal in my world, a world that is usually more or less cut off from What’s Cool Right Now. (I still haven’t seen either Interstellar or The Martian, for example, and I have no idea how many superheroes are currently appearing on network television series.) I’ve had huge expectations for each of these installments, which have consistently been setting the bar higher and higher. Great art, fantastic story-telling, compelling science fiction, and giant transforming robots. What’s not to love?

I say all that to say that the expectations were ratcheted up (no pun intended regarding the cover) pretty high for Volume 8, and it was the first volume that disappointed. I usually read each volume twice before posting a review. With Roberts’ writing this is important, as the narrative flow can at times be very dense. This one though only merited a quick re-skim to see if my initial dissatisfaction was justified. I think it was.

So here’s my list of tongue-in-cheek suggestions as to why this volume for the very first time in the run of TF:MTMTE trades left a bad taste in my mouth. And I say tongue-in-cheek because I realize it’s easy to criticize. So while I stand by these complaints, I still say Roberts is doing great work and can keep doing whatever he wants. I’ll be reading Volume 9, no worries. These are also tongue-in-cheek because they’re also to some extent an acknowledgement of what Roberts is doing continually, which is turning some common expectations on their heads.

But anyway, here they are:

1. Don’t humanize the sociopaths. The Decepticon Justice Division since nearly the very beginning of the series have been the bogeymen, the horror, the real Bad Guys now that the Decepticons themselves are ambiguous. (I’m not sure who the Bad Guys are in the other IDW Transformer title.) They were the worst of the worst of what the Decepticon cause could become. So don’t humanize them now. Don’t pull their teeth. We’ve already had sociopaths getting humanized: Megatron. So please keep Tarn and company easy to hate. Don’t introduce us to the humor and social dynamics of their crew. Don’t confuse our loyalties. And please, please don’t give the DJD a Tailgate. We don’t need another cute sidekick to show us the softer side of our mechanical killing machines.

2. Don’t dial back the body count. This series immediately found its legs by introducing us to the second-stringers of the Transformers universe and not being afraid to kill them. We learned that the secondary characters were themselves heroes, and then we learned that heroes died. The early issues– especially those with Overlord– were gritty and felt real. Things have lightened up significantly in this volume, which is fine, but now we’ve got another wave of second-second-stringers to keep track of. We’ve got a second replacement medic. We’ve got a bunch of new faces. Fine, but remind us why this all matters. I’m with Rodimus on this one: please let Thunderclash die, for goodness’ sake. I guess I’m as twisted as the DJD: I want dead Autobots or the game just stops feeling real.

3. Don’t get sappy. I get it, and I appreciate it: we’re playing with romantic relationships among non-biologically gendered robots. That’s pretty cool, and it was pretty effective when it was Rewind and Chromedome. But I feel like this volume has a lot of drama, a lot of weird tensions, and a lot of goofy crushing. Please, please, please don’t give me an Autobot love triangle (unless Dominus Ambus turns about to be Tarn). And please don’t give me any more pictures of Rewind and Chromedome on a flowered backdrop with the words “my love” written anywhere, ever.

4. Don’t get cute. Besides the two-issue throwaway story arch about the charisma parasites (which I think was a low point for the series so far), this is my major complaint about this volume. It felt too cute. Ten is cute. He draws cute pictures and makes cute toys. Swerve is very meta and cute, creating an entire sitcom planet in which our heroes can cut cute figures and be cute and snarky. I’ve already complained about the DJD’s cute sidekick. Even Megatron’s cuteness in this volume, as he bickers with both Rodimus and Magnus, shows perhaps more than anything else his integration into the Lost Light crew. One or two issues of heavy cuteness I think I could have taken, but the whole volume was full of it. (A major theme of this volume was Autobot dance parties, for Cybertron’s sake.)

Again though, it’s quite likely that Roberts knows exactly what he’s doing. He probably has some of this series’ darkest developments up his sleeve, and he knows we need some time sit back and relax, project our holomatter avatars and just be silly for a while. Or perhaps he’ll explain away the whole thing in another few issues with a wonderfully detailed explanation involving metabombs, time loops, and quantum cuteness paradoxes. Maybe while all this was happening in our universe, another crew of the Lost Light completed their quest only to realize Cyberutopia was long ago consumed by the Chaos-Bringer, Overlord returned, and Pharma had an epic battle over a smelting pool with Ratchet (as opposed to our universe, where Ratchet gets a Drift action figure).

But to tell the truth (Primus help me), I would have rather read a comic about that universe.


Last week I participated in my first con, a local one here in my hometown. I thought it would be a good way to get the word out about First Fleet, especially as we get close to the fourth and final installment being released this summer. I approached my publisher about getting some promotional materials printed for distribution, and he had the idea to print up pamphlets of First Fleet 1: Bones with links on the back to the rest of the installments on Amazon.

I did a bit of research online about what makes a good convention table stand out. My goal was to look professional, catch people’s eyes, and get copies of Bones into as many hands as possible. Also to have fun.

I had business cards printed through Vistaprint with a QR code on the back that links to my Amazon author’s page. I considered going with Moo, but as cool as their card designs look, the price differential was just too high. There are some complaints online about the quality of Vistaprint’s cards, but I was quite pleased. I had mine printed vertically on Vistaprint’s recycled paper option and found a couple old Gundam figurines in the basement that served quite nicely as card-holders (and got attention from the sort of people who like robot figurines– of whom there were many).

The table was focused on First Fleet, but I also wanted to highlight some of my other publications. I borrowed a book display from work and set out copies of some of the magazines in which my work has appeared. None of these were for sale (though you can access them through my Amazon author’s page), but several people stopped to thumb through them. The Lore cover in particular with the lovely monster drew a few..


I read that a table should have something with good height, and the fantastic poster my publisher sent featuring the cover of First Fleet 2: Wake (which was available for free download the day of the con) served this function nicely. If I was going to do this again, I might replace the poster (which took up table space) with a collapsable vertical banner to stand behind my table.

Again, my goal was primarily to make local contacts, have fun, and get the word out about First Fleet. To that end, I think it was successful. I distributed about 250 copies of Bones, and online stats showed almost 200 downloads of Wake that day. That’s a pretty good “activation rate,” considering it means that many people took the additional step of going online and downloading the first portion of the novel.

Plus, I learned that our town once again has a local comic book shop.

So, wins all around.

More than Meets the Eye, Vol. 7 continued (an interview with James Roberts!)

1James Roberts is without a doubt my favorite writer working in comics right now– not simply because he’s working with the legends of my childhood but because he’s not afraid to use those characters to do new, creative, compelling storytelling in the Transformers universe. I’ve expounded on his work here before, most recently earlier this week, where I explained that I’d posed Roberts and artist Alex Milne some questions on their work on the series and that they’d been gracious enough to respond. Milne’s responses are here, and Roberts’ are below:

Q: What’s it like writing inside a franchise universe? Are there narrative constraints you run up against? You’ve done some incredibly creative things with characters like Ultra Magnus and Megatron, but is there ever a frustration that at the end of the day certain things can’t change?

JR: I can’t speak for other writers working with other licensed characters, but there really are very few restrictions within IDW’s TF universe. Hasbro have the final say as to what goes out, but I’m confident that their vision for the G1 side of things is the same as IDW’s. It helps enormously – certainly in terms of the stories that I want to write – that Michael Kelly (Senior Director of Global Publishing at Hasbro, and the person who, after John [Barber, senior editor at IDW], signs off the scripts) has always been keen to humanise the TFs – to make them characterful. 

It’s true that efforts are being made on both sides to make the comics complement the toys (see ‘Combiner Wars’ for example), but we’re in a good place right now in that the comics are starting to influence the toys. You mention Ultra Magnus. In Season 1 of MTMTE we learned that these days ‘Ultra Magnus’ is a title, inherited – along with a hulking suit of armour – by law enforcers. Currently the armour is worn by Minimus Ambus, someone I created and Alex designed for ‘Remain in Light’, the S1 finale. Now, in the last few months Hasbro have brought out a new version of Magnus and it’s very much the MTMTE version, complete with a Minimus figure. 

And no, I’ve never felt frustrated that certain things can’t change. Quite the opposite: I genuinely believe that the IDW TF universe is one of the most unrestrictive, status-quo-avoiding, open-ended, ever-evolving universes in modern comics. Since John and I started on ‘Phase 2’, as it’s now called, the war has finished (and stayed finished), the Neutrals have returned, Starscream has become ruler of Cybertron, Bumblebee has died etc etc. The clock hasn’t been turned back and we’re not re-setting anything. It’s great. 

Q: For those of us who aren’t following the series each month in the comic book but who get it for the first time in the trades, can you talk a bit about how those are packaged? Is it simply a new one every six issues or so, or is there intention behind how they’re divided?

JR: The latter. John and I structure the ‘seasons’ so that there’s a natural break point every five or six issues. That’s normally not too difficult. At the beginning of MTMTE and Robots in Disguise, he and I said – publicly, too, I think – that we wanted to tell more one- and two-part stories (which you didn’t really get much of, and still don’t get much of, in mainstream comics). Telling shorter tales makes it easier to group the stories into the trades. 

TF_MTMTE_35_cvr1Q: Help someone who’s fairly ignorant of the artistic process understand the relationship between art and narrative. Do the scripts go to Alex fairly finalized, or is it an iterative process? Has the artwork ever transformed the narrative, either in a particular instance or over the course of the series?

JR: I think Alex describes the process well. There are two ways of writing a script, generally speaking: ‘the Marvel method’ and ‘full script’. The former is when the writer breaks down the issue into scenes and describes each one in a few paragraphs; then the artists translates that into layouts and pencils, and the writer adds dialog at the end. With the exception of some Dark Cybertron issues, I’ve always preferred to write ‘full script’, which breaks down each page into panels and describes what’s in the panels, and writes dialog then. The whole package is passed to John, then Alex, and Alex works his magic. As he says, that can involve deviating from the panel descriptions. We trust each other enough that he can interpret moments a different way without prior discussion.

Q: Which character has surprised you most over the course of the series? Are there some you wish you could have spent more time with? (I’m thinking, for instance, of the abrupt departures of Red Alert, Fortress Maximus, and Drift.)

JR: I did think I’d do more with Red Alert in Season 1 but found I was struggling to line things up for him after his attempted suicide; that’s not to say I don’t want to ‘work’ with him again. Fort Max was never going to stick around because he was originally going to die at Overlord’s hands in #15, and then he was going to do something so beyond the pale it would have meant taking him off the board for a long, long time. Dropping him off on Luna 1, so to speak, was more about putting him in a holding position so I think more about how to use him. 

Over the course of the series I’ve found myself more invested than I anticipated in the likes of Whirl, Magnus, Tailgate, Brainstorm and Nautica.

Q: I’m not going to ask the forbidden question of how much you had mapped out at the beginning of the series, but how seriously should we be taking the Necrobot’s list? And when are we going to see Misfire’s misfits again? (Free band name suggestion there.)

JR: Ah, well, the Necrobot list mystery has kind of been cleared up… but for the avoidance of doubt: the famous names on the list we saw at the end of #8 relate to the ‘copy’ characters who were killed on the duplicate Lost Light in issues #32 and #33.

The Scavengers return very, very shortly.

3Q: Apart from making good art, telling good stories, and making fans very, very happy, what relevancy do giant transforming robots have today? Do you see your work as having significance outside the comics alone?

JR: We’re using giant transforming robots to tell all sorts of stories about life, love, death, illness, society, the government, faith, friendship and the rest. The best science fiction – the best fiction – holds a mirror up to the reader. It’s like Swerve says in #41: we valorise fiction because it tells us about ourselves. I’m not putting MTMTE up there with the best, but beyond the giant robots – or rather *through* the giant robots – we’re trying to tell the best stories we can; and the best stories touch a chord because you relate to them, or the characters in them.

Alex is right about TF comics – and licensed comics generally – getting a bit of a cold shoulder on the basis that, somehow, they’re not legitimate comics – which is patently absurd. But it’s changing! Attitudes are changing. People are far more open. We’re benefiting from a new generations of readers and critics who are more open and less dismissive, because good stories are good stories. 

And, you know, MTMTE and RiD and Windblade sell well. In print form they’re rock solid, in digital they do VERY well. I can’t speak for the other titles because I only focus obsessively on MTMTE’s ‘rank’, but on Comixology the most recent issue hit #3 in the UK, #8 in the rest of Europe and #9 in the US. People are still checking it and sticking around.

More than Meets the Eye, vol. 7

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 7Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 7 by James Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I reviewed earlier volumes of More than Meets the Eye, I said it was like all your childhood friends getting on a spaceship and going off to have adventures. But it’s actually quite a lot better than that, because the imaginary adventures I had with my childhood friends seldom made much sense or had any sort of narrative cohesion. Another analogy I’ve used for this series is that it’s like the best of Transformers meets the best of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That’s a bit of a better analogy, as it gets at what makes both of these series tick: a great crew exploring some amazing science fiction scenarios. But it’s not a perfect analogy either, as The Next Generation had no extended narrative arch. There was nothing in later seasons or episodes that suddenly made earlier clues fall into place, which is one of the most satisfying (and challenging) aspects of the type of story-telling that television has been doing since Babylon 5 and comics have been doing forever. MTMTE knows this game, revels in it, and plays it to the hilt.

Volume 7 has everything you’ve come to know and love about MTMTE, now with extra time travel. We pick up with a few second-string characters in a stand-alone at the volume’s beginning that effectively reminds us (as if we needed a reminder in the wake of what has come before) to fear and dread– to keep checking under our beds for– the Decepticon Justice Division and dangles some clues about the past of Megatron’s ever-deepening character. Then we launch into a time-travel arch that lets Roberts give us more Cybertronian history without feeling as much of a tangent as some initial forays like this did earlier in the series. It’s clear Roberts want to firmly tie events in this series into Cybertron’s past. The result is character development that takes place in both directions, which is no mean feat if you think about it. (Megatron is a prime example of this. Pun only 65% intended.)

Milne continues to draw the contours of my imagination. His work is at once exceedingly detailed and exceedingly crisp. His backgrounds never seem secondary, which is remarkable when you consider that every vista or wide-angle in this series is a mechanical landscape. There’s no room for organic laziness. Everything has to show signs of exactness and engineering. This is a universe of clean lines and details– even in the midst of chaos and battle. There’s no way around it: Milne’s work is perfect for the series.

And Roberts’ writing continues to impress. He strikes an ideal balance in this volume of appearing to wrap things up (or at least give a satisfying measure of narrative closure) while creating new plot points to follow up later. Indeed, it was only on a second reading (and you know a comic has narrative heft if you need to read it at least twice to catch everything) that I realized how many new nooks and crannies to the story had been presented. Leaving aside the time loop and splinter universe, some of these included things like the identity, fate, and machinations of Terminus, Megatron’s early mentor; the disappearance of Roller; and just who exactly was experimenting on sparks in Cybertron’s past. My single complaint in this installment was Brainstorm’s explanation of his motivations. For all the talk of him being a genius, I wanted more. Apparently he’s the tinkering-with-devices kind of genius, not the nefarious schemes genius.

Since I’ve already waxed eloquent about this series (and now about this volume), I thought I’d go further and pike the collective brain of the team behind it, posing artist Alex Milne and writer James Roberts a few questions on Facebook. To my delight, they were good enough to oblige. Posting them both together was a bit lengthy, so Alex’s responses are below, and Roberts’ will appear on the blog on Saturday.

tf_mtmte_38_cover_lineart_by_markerguru-d87cjdkQ: You have a distinctive style representing Transformers as a lot more than blocky robots. They have expressions, get sick, and even bleed, sort of. They have gruesome deaths. How much of your designs or way of visualizing the Transformers came from previous iterations or from influences outside the franchise?

AM: I guess my style for drawing Transformers is a ever evolving thing. I do absorb a lot of different visual elements from other media and artist I like and try and to incorporate that into my own work. I see what works for me and what doesn’t and I keep playing around and changing how I do things. I’m never quite satisfied with my work. I’m always seeing if I can do better and push myself more. I always look to the past Transformer series and comics and see what I can take from there that will integrate well with what I’m doing. Right now I’ve been trying out more traditional inking techniques to use on the pages. A big inspiration for this is the works of Sean Gordan Murphy who does amazing black and white work. It might make Joana’s [Joana LaFuente, the series’ outstanding colorist] job a lot harder, but I’ve been playing around with using just a brush at times to create interesting inking effects. Hopefully I will continue to be inspired and find new ways of doing things with my art for the book.

Q: Help someone who’s fairly ignorant of the artistic process understand the relationship between art and narrative. Do the scripts come to you fairly finalized, or is it an iterative process? Has the artwork ever transformed the narrative, either in a particular instance or over the course of the series?

AM: I don’t want to speak for James, but I do get very detailed scripts for each issue. Some of them have had more detail than others and I think we’ve gotten to the point where he can describe the basics of what he wants and he knows I will be able to pull it off. There are times when James will write a series of panels where he wants the same image over and an easy way to do that is to copy the one image over again. Well I don’t like doing that and I don’t think I’ve ever done that for MTMTE. I like to think that I can re-draw those panels but have slight changes to them that helps add to the mood of what James is trying to convey with the story. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to save some time, I just come up with an idea in my head and I have to roll with it. Usually I think it works out pretty well.

Q: Did you put together Gundam models as a kid? (I’m thinking of Prowl’s autopsy scene early in the series.)

AM: Yes, yes I did have Gundam model kits as a kid and I still do buy them and put them together. In fact a have a lot of different Anime and giant robot kits and toys that eat up a lot of space in my room, but I would never get rid of them since I think they are so cool looking and fun to build and display. I guess that was a big factor in the autopsy scene. It definitely help come up with how piece of that bot should be laid out on the ground.

Q: Apart from making good art, telling good stories, and making fans very, very happy, what relevancy do giant transforming robots have today? Do you see your work as having significance outside the comics alone?

AM: For myself, it’s hard to see if my work is having a significance outside or even inside comics. I mean, there are a lot of people who can’t get over the stigma of a Transformers comic being anything more then a comic to sell toys. I know from past experience in the comic industry that other comic companies don’t take Transformers comic art as serious and feel its less worthy of looking at over mainstream comics. Recently I have seen that more people are getting into the TF comics and that makes me very happy, but I don’t know if it’s making any significance. I guess it’s just disappointing to me that all the hard work that we put into the comics can just be waved off by some people because they think we’re just selling toys and how can you get a great story from toys? I guess MTMTE is bringing new reader to Transformers so I guess small steps.

More than Meets the Eye: Volume 6

UnknownTransformers: More Than Meets the Eye Volume 6 by James Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An open letter to James Roberts:

Dear Mr. Roberts,

Thank you. I have lots of questions, certainly, and I have plenty of comments, but I need to start with that: thanks. When I read a work I love, that seems the first and most necessary response. I know that writing is a difficult labor– no matter how easy some people make it look and no matter what a reward it must be to see those stories given form by Milne’s artwork. It’s probably still worth something (I hope) to hear a heartfelt thank you from a reader.

But let’s talk about why we should be thanking you for a moment, shall we? Obviously there were a lot of us who grew up loving Transformers, who filled afternoons with sagas enacted by forms of molded plastic on bedroom floors. There were probably less of us, but still a significant number, who bought wholeheartedly into the mythology that Furman created in his brief stint on the original Marvel run, who realized that of course these characters were scions of a god and the universe’s last line of defense against the Chaos-bringer, that of course they were more than simply robots that transformed into cars.

And then we grew up.

We passed the broken survivors of garage sales that hung on in basements and attics to our kids. We went to Botcon maybe once or twice, taped Beast Wars when it was on television, and tried our hand at fan fiction with embarrassing results. We had our hopes dashed by the live action movies. We waited. We knew what we had glimpsed once upon a time, but it appeared as though the deep well of mythology and potentiality in story and mystique– in the epic of a million years’ war– would remain untapped.

But then there was More Than Meets the Eye, and now six volumes of trades into it, here we are. We can talk about the journey that it’s been– what it was like to realize that someone else got it and was going to start telling those stories– but the primary feeling throughout has been: of course. It’s about time. It felt as though these were stories being uncovered as much as they were being created. They were in the bones of the thing itself– spark, cog, and marrow– waiting to be told. We knew they were there. We half-remembered them ourselves. And now, we can nod and gasp and laugh and cry over the pages with recognition.

Except, of course, surprises linger. I read and then I re-read volume 6, trying to imagine the voice of Frank Welker speaking the lines you’ve given Megatron. You are doing a new thing here, because you refuse to let anything be taken as a given. You’re going to give us character and depth, even in what had been the most single-dimensional villain in the entire franchise. In each volume of MTMTE so far we’re provided a new angle, a new insight, and in this one it is the character of the former Decepticon leader himself.

Very well done.

We get new characters as well, showing your continued determination to make this a series about the second-stringers, and pushing against convention when the second-stringers themselves begin to feel established in the limelight by bringing in new faces and introducing them in ways that don’t seem contrived. We get what we expect as well in the sense of science fiction tropes done well and done with Autobots. We also get all of this given form in the continually impressive, subtle, and just so darn wonderful artwork of Milne. Can we talk for just a minute about the care he took in eviscerating everyone’s favorite spaceship?

Okay, so you obviously don’t need any advice besides: keep doing this, but I’m going to give some anyway. Feel free to skip over this to the part at the end when I say thank you one more time and promise to keep reading.

1. Can we all just agree that we’ll do everything we can to keep Milne happy and drawing these comics? I’m not saying that there’s no one else out there who could do it as well but– no, I think I am saying exactly that. Please, guys, don’t ever break up.

2. Do anything you want. Really. I was a bit annoyed at first (okay, I still am) that characters aren’t getting killed off fast enough and that some of them have started coming back. I get it. It’s a comic thing and a franchise thing. But–

3. Kill off at least one cute sidekick. With Swerve and everyone it’s great. With Rewind and Chromedome it’s sweet. With Tailgate and Cyclonus it’s getting old.

4. Spoiler: start dropping some hints about who or what the Lost Light transforms into. I know, I know, I’m a bit slow. It took me until this volume before it hit me: she’s going to transform some day, and it’s going to be awesome.

That’s all. You’re a British subject, right? I think we could probably make a case for you being knighted for service to science fiction literature and sentient robotic lifeforms. It’s probably not how these things work, but you’d have my vote.

Thank you. I promise to keep reading.

Your fan,

Joe the Barbarian

Joe the Barbarian Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s too not often that a book jumps off the shelf and grabs me, even though I always walk by bookshelves slowly enough to give the books plenty of opportunity. This usually happens when my wife and I find ourselves at our local Barnes and Noble. I used to feel I needed to spend time here in the history, science, or philosophy sections, just in case any students happened upon me. Now I gravitate more or less unashamedly to the graphic novels. I get grown-up books through inter-library loan when they’re not available in the public domain online, and it’s unlikely that B&N would have anything as specific as what I’m looking for anyway. But for an hour or so of casual perusal, something light, look for me in the ever-expanding graphic novel section.

Joe the Barbarian jumped off the shelf because it looked compelling and was a single volume stand-alone. (Who has the time to get invested in a serial? It’s all I can do to keep up with my beloved More than Meets the Eye.) The art is fabulous and the story is the perfect surrealist-fantasy trope, blending the lines between realism and magic in the way especially suited for graphic representation. I read half of it in a single sitting. A month or so later, when it was time to buy comic books for my brother-in-law’s birthday, I picked up two obligatory Batman titles and then perched in the magazine section with this volume once again. After getting about two-thirds of the way through it, I realized he would love it as much as I did. So I bought it, brought it home and read it, made my wife read it, and only then wrapped it.

It really is nearly flawless. Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy create a tale in which the boy-hero’s real-world home flows seamlessly into a fantasy world that mirrors and epically extends his house. The main character is Joe, who upon waking from a nap in his attic bedroom finds that he may be having a diabetic episode caused by lack of sugar or may have been transported into a magical realm. Or both. Aspects of both worlds blend back and forth. Joe has to make his way downstairs to get a soda, or he has to free the realm in which he finds himself from the darkening grip of Lord Death. Either way, the lights are going out, and Joe wanders downward through rooms and corridors and crypts and wastelands. His pet rat, Jack, becomes his companion, guide, and defender, the warrior-rat (very like I always imagined my Battle Beasts) Chakk. In the bathroom, he meets Sewer Pirates. Near the fireplace, he rests at Castle Hearth. The wonder of seeing a home through a child’s eyes, of watching Joe move back and forth between his real house and its fantastic echo, somehow reveals the magic hidden in the walls of any safe and beloved place.

There are darker aspects at play too. In the background, behind the very real crisis of Joe being home alone and possibly in serious medical trouble, there is the larger situation: his father, a soldier, has died, leaving him and his mother with a home they may not be able to save. Joe’s powerlessness in the face of these circumstances is mirrored in his hallucinations. In the magical realm he is known as the Dying Boy, a hero foreordained to defeat Lord Death, though he does not know how. There is a quest. There are friends and foes. There are spectacular vistas. There are broken doorways and falls down staircases and all the perils of childhood.

The graphic novel this reminded me of most was I Kill Giants, though whereas that was a sketch of childhood fear against the threat of cancer, this feels more complete, drawn out, and—in reality—far more colorful. It also reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Peace, the novel in which the dead narrator wanders through rooms in a mansion that may simply be memories in his own dead skull, or The High House by James Stoddard, in which an English mansion contains limitless worlds.

I finished this book with tears in my eyes. That doesn’t happen often.

X-Cutioner’s Song

X-Men: X-Cutioners Song TPBX-Men: X-Cutioners Song TPB by Fabian Nicieza

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not a fan of crossovers. At the core, what is a giant comics crossover other than simply an attempt to get you to buy more comic books? If done right, I suppose, a crossover might also be a chance to bring different characters together and spin a story that spans a couple universes or intertwines a few storylines, but honestly—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crossover done well. (The Great Fables Crossover was certainly a disappointment, and I’m viewing Dark Cybertron as an unwelcome interruption in my favorite regularly-scheduled comic book.)

There’s so much that can go wrong. Crossovers often have the feeling of being written by a committee and then being put together on the page by a subcommittee, or an entire handful of subcommittees. And this is often I imagine exactly how it’s done. Because each comic title has its own writers and artists, usually with their own vision for the feel of the series and where the stories are going, the pacing and how they’re developed, and oftentimes slamming them together ends up just feeling like a train wreck. Now imagine trying to do that with something as huge and unwieldy as the various X-People Marvel lines, in their early-90s heyday. That’s pretty much exactly what you get with X-Cutioner’s Song.

There’s one reason I bought this volume: nostalgia. I picked it up at a Marvel-themed gift-shop at Universal Studios as a teenager because as a kid I had been on the ground-floor of the launch of Marvel’s second X-Men title. I think I still have issue #1 of that “mutant milestone” floating around somewhere. As a young reader though, I was the primary target of this, the first major crossover involving the title, which was engineered solely to get a kids like me to shell out money for not just the normal X-Men comics but also the Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, and X-Force. (They were doing the same thing with Spider-Man titles at the same time, calling it Maximum Carnage, and I remember a few of my friends scrambling to piece together the story through Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Men, and whatever other Spider-titles were running then.) Of course I couldn’t do this, and so there were always holes in the narrative. I wondered what had happened to my characters during their appearances in the other issues. And I had lost many of the issues I had managed to collect anyway, so I bought the volume.

I re-read it again this summer for the same reason: nostalgia. That’s really the only reason there is to pick up this particular collection. The train wreck analogy actually works quite well here. In fact, I think I may have stumbled onto the solution for the X-Men’s faltering transition to the big screen: get Michael Bay to make this into a movie. Everything is ready for him: the thin veneer of plot involving Cyclops and Jean Grey getting kidnapped, Xavier being nearly assassinated, no one knowing what’s going on, and a confrontation between Cable and his clone Stryfe. Pieces of information are dangled but never really resolved. (We learn pretty much nothing about the origins of Cable and Stryfe, though they dance around it the entire book.) The lurching narrative is liberally interspersed with wild melees in which X-Factor fights X-Force, X-Men fight X-Force, X-everyone fights various villains, and Cable and Stryfe fight each other. Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister make random, fairly inexplicable appearances and disappearances. Women (and men!) wear spandex. Cable, Wolverine, and Bishop hang out on a space station. Listing all these things actually makes it sound like more fun than it was.

I think part of the problem with the various X-Men titles is that there’s just so much backstory that at some point it gets nearly impossible to keep track of it all. I looked up the entries for Cable and Cyclops on Wikipedia after reading this, for example, to see if I could answer the questions that this volume did not. It was dizzying. There’s something very compelling to such a Byzantine history, but it also makes it largely inaccessible. It also makes something like X-Cutioner’s Song incredibly unsatisfying as a stand-alone piece. (Though at the end of the day, this is what comic book companies want, right? Because otherwise you might not buy the next issue.) This volume was especially maddening as it didn’t even tie up the crossover pieces that it developed. The story “began,” for instance, with the X-Force on the run because X-everyone-else though that the X-Force leader, Cable, had assassinated Xavier. X-Force, which consists of the younger, next generation of mutants, go head to head with some of their former mentors and trainers. This wrinkle was actually kind of compelling. There was also some good tension as the X-Force de facto leader, Cannonball, accompanied the X-Men to carry out missions while the rest of his team languished in captivity.

But you know what? The volume ended with absolutely no resolution on this score at all. Some of the heroes end up on the Moon to witness the final Cable/Stryfe confrontation, and then that’s it. We don’t even get a hint or an afterword or something explaining what happens to the kids in X-Force (or why Cable had abandoned them in the first place or what happens to them after he disappears). There’s a distinct impression that the compilers simply did not care enough to tell us. Another indication of this lack of care: a table of contents to help keep all the different issues in this volume straight and then the omission of page numbers from any page in the volume.

If there’s a bright spot in this volume (besides the nostalgia for trading comic books on the playground and creating our own X-characters during recess), it’s the art in the X-Factor issues. I don’t know who was drawing those issues and I don’t care enough to wade through all the names to find out, but it’s a marked departure from the generic (though not bad) comic book art throughout the rest of the book. I remember that as a kid though it drove me nuts. It was almost too noir, definitely not as realistic as the artwork in the other X-titles (using the term realistic, of course, very loosely). Looking back though, it seems the freshest and most original part of the book.

I wonder what happened to those characters after this chapter was complete. Because on the one hand that’s the appeal of long-running comic titles like these: you know the stories keep going on and on and on. On the other hand though, that’s the problem: the stories go on, but the characters never change, not really. Wolverine will always be the exact same person. Apocalypse will always come back. We’ll go through the same variations of the same stories over and over again, but—since (in some respects) I’m no longer twelve—I find I don’t have the patience to play.

Rice Boy


About a month ago, the website io9 ran a very dangerous story. It was a list along with short descriptions of 17 completed science fiction and fantasy web comics. I spent some time perusing it, knowing that they represented at least 17 potential worlds to fall into but that I couldn’t read them all. Their description of Evan Dahm’s Rice Boy as “fantasy word-building with a heavy dose of the surreal” caught me though, so I gave it a shot. I was not disappointed.

I have a few favorite web comics (Hark a Vagrant and David Troupe’s Buttercup Festival top my list), but reading a full-on graphic novel in a web medium was a new experience for me. I can see the appeal that such a form has for the creator and the freedom it affords. Ideally it allows an artist more creative freedom, without editors or publishers. It also seems a fairly smart business model: build a following by allowing people to read it for free, and then offer hard-copy version for sale. (This is the same model used by online services from WordPress to Spotify: those who pay the premium fees, along with advertisers, subsidize the cost that allows it to be free for everyone else.) As the io9 article indicates, there are a lot of talented individuals out there building graphical worlds along these lines.

Dahm’s Rice Boy is colorful and surreal. It follows the travels of the machine man The One Electronic (T-O-E), an agent of God looking to find the fulfiller of an ancient prophecy, and Rice Boy, a small, meek, polite, uh, thing, who may or may not be said fulfiller. Like any classical fantasy-quest story, there is lots of running around to lots of different ancient and magical realms. Interesting characters are met, words of magic are spoken, enemies gather, and the prophecy is fulfilled, though of course not in the way you expect. If that all sounds like fairly standard fantasy fare, it is. Indeed, the running hither and yon as Rice Boy slowly learns more about the history of Overside (the world in which the tale is set) and his own past gets a bit tedious, especially as Rice Boy himself seems to lack all agency until the very final chapter of the work.

What saves Dahm’s work though, indeed what makes it quite wonderful, is that this fairly standard fantasy trope is told through completely enchanting visuals. Imagine a fantasy epic set in the various vistas of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go or Oh the Thinks You Can Think and you have a starting point. Dahm’s world is vibrant, and it’s easy to set aside you frustration as Rice Boy is sent off to meet yet another mysterious figure in yet another distant land, because every place he visits is beautiful and singularly new. Really, Seuss’s worlds are the closest thing I can compare this to, though in Dahm’s work the whimsy of Seuss is supplemented by eerie loneliness and haunting vastness. This isn’t a place to rhyme about whether or not the sneetch has a star on its chest; this is a place to fight the Bleach Beast and venture into the foreboding desert of Skorch.

If the landscapes lack a Seussian whimsy, Dahm finds it again in his characters. Besides the innocence of Rice Boy himself (who reminds me randomly enough of the main character of Troupe’s Buttercup Festival), this land is filled with creatures who both in their friendliness and cuddliness might have tumbled off of an Ugly Dolls display. That’s not to say there are no villains. We have creepy black assassins and a frog army as well as some monsters, but Dahm’s bright colors and clear drawing style seem more suited for squishy friend than scaly foe.

Rice Boy is Dahm’s first complete tale set in his world of Overside, and on his website you can find another complete epic (this one in black and white) as well as his current, uncompleted project. And this is the real danger or gift of online web comics. Once you venture down that rabbit hole and realize how many talented folks there are out there continually creating worlds, where does it end?

It doesn’t, I suppose, and that’s kind of the point.