Comic Book Review – Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying (2014)

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Before inspired stories like Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Tom Strong solidified Alan Moore as arguably the best comic book writer of his generation, two important early works of his – Miracleman (formerly Marvelman in the UK) and V For Vendetta – were seminal works in establishing his reputation. Back in the early ’80s, I had never come across anything like Miracleman, it was so unlike any other comic I’d been collecting up to that point. Alan Moore created these impactful stories that were dark and subversive and up-ended the superhero mythos. I wasn’t around in the early ’60s and so had missed out on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creating their brand. So, for me, Miracleman was THE gamechanger; the start of the British invasion into mainstream American comics which completely transformed the industry in the mid-80s.

Here’s a bit of backstory: Back in the 1940s DC (then National Comics) sued Fawcett Comics, believing that Fawcett’s flagship superhero, Captain Marvel, was a knockoff of Superman. Fawcett ended up discontinuing the Captain Marvel title in the 1950s. This also resulted in the termination of Captain Marvel reprints in the UK. In 1954 Mick Anglo created a British counterpart to Captain Marvel, named Marvelman, to fill in the gap. The Marvelman comic book had a lengthy nine-year run, ending in 1963, at which point the world forgot him. Until Alan Moore came along and resurrected the character.

Mick Anglo didn’t even try to be covert about his mimicking of Captain Marvel. Like the Big Red Cheese, young journalist Micky Moran invokes a magic word to transform himself into a near invincible superhero. Marvelman would also have sidekicks, Dicky Dauntless (a.k.a. Young Marvelman) and Johnny Bates (a.k.a. Kid Marvelman). His nemesis, Dr. Gargunza, was very reminiscent of Dr. Sivana. The Marvelman family’s exploits would be fairly innocuous and standard to superhero storytelling circa the 1950’s.

In 1982, in a UK anthology comic book magazine titled Warrior, Alan Moore presented a worn down, middle-aged Mike Moran, freelance journalist and chronic victim of bizarre dreams and excruciating migraines. Moran had been grasping for years at things beyond his ken, seeking a forgotten word, dreaming of flight. The revelation comes when Moran is endangered during the terrorist take-over of a nuclear facility. It’s when he reacquires that one word which is the key harmonic to the universe. And he returns to godhood. It’s a basic superhero set-up. But it’s only the start. Alan Moore is about to shake up the establishment in earthquake proportions.

So, before Watchmen was even created, Moore had already redefined the superhero genre, had already had his way with the grim post-modern deconstruction of the superhero character. It’s a given that Marvel Comics’ mutantdom is universally feared by ordinary humans. And Spider-man has a running love/hate relationship with the public. Moore, however, made the public’s dread of superheroes a palpable, logical thing. Alan Moore gave us the real ramifications of super beings walking in our midst. It’s scary stuff.

I remember my excitement at Moore’s inaugural story arc. It had elements of sublime horror that foreshadowed Moore’s stint at Swamp Thing. The story unfolds with an escalating sense of dread and oppressiveness. It’s adult storytelling that firmly shies away from kiddish tropes. In light of this, it’s hard not to snicker at that astrophysicist with the inside track on the key harmonic to the universe (so crucial to Marvelman’s 1950’s origin). The main villain of Moore’s first arc is straight up terrifying including the life this villain has been leading while Mike has been trapped in this near-amnesiac state. Moore also introduces a disturbing triangle amongst Moran, his wife Liz, and Miracleman. The wedge-driving question surfaces as to whether Moran and his alter ego are the same person after all.

We also learn of the Spookshow, a branch of the British Air Force Intelligence that is perhaps intimately tied to the Miracleman family. As a nod to the cheesy comic book tropes he’d been subverting, Moore introduces Big Ben, the bowler-hatted Man with No Time for Crime. Big Ben, on the surface, seems a fun if flaky character. But the plot digs deeper and lays bare his tragic underpinnings.

The artists are Garry Leach and Alan Davis, and their contributions to visualising the story are as instrumental as Moore in conveying that sense of realism; Leach and Davis draw characters that look like real people. Miracleman isn’t musclebound, isn’t ever caught in familiar over-the-top heroic poses. The naturalness of his gestures and movements captures how effortless it is for him to do these amazing things and gives you an inkling, without beating you over the head, of how powerful he truly is. The spectacular action beats are staged seamlessly in convincing low-keyed backdrops, and this allows you to buy into the improbable. I do prefer Leach’s work by a smidge. His stuff is more gritty, plants you more solidly in reality. Davis’ is more stylish. Word is that Davis took over from Leach because Leach was such a perfectionist he was jeopardizing the comic’s scheduling release.

How’s this for irony? Marvelman became Miracleman, thanks to Marvel Comics getting antsy and crying name infringement. But at the 2009 San Diego ComicCon, Marvel announced that it had purchased the rights to Marvelman. I’d been in an extended sulk over all the infighting within the industry that cast Miracleman in decades of legal limbo, but that’s done now. Even though I own Eclipse’s 1990 trade (also titled Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying), I’m happy to own this Marvel trade, as well. Mainly, because it’s a promise to you and me that this series will continue on and that Neil Gaiman, now unmuzzled, can finally finish off the story he started with his run on the book. This volume from Marvel Comics reprints Miracleman issues #1-4, (which in turn reprinted stories from Warrior #1-11). New contents include 3 or 4 back-up stories. “The Yesterday Gambit” (originally published in Warrior #4) features a temporal leap forward with Miracleman and a Warpsmith. “Cold War, Cold Warrior” (Warrior #9-10) and “Ghost Dance” (A1 #1) feature the Warpsmiths – an aloof, cosmic, peacekeeping, teleporting alien species – who would figure much later in Miracleman’s Olympus arc. I can’t remember if “Saturday Morning Pictures” – originally used in Quality’s Marvelman Special #1 – was included in Eclipse’s 1990 trade. It’s in this one, though, and acts as a coda to Moore’s “A Dream of Flying” arc. In this story, cleaning personnel tidy up the ruins of the Project Zarathustra bunker and end up viewing video tapes about the Miracleman family. It’s essentially a framing device that Quality’s Marvelman Special #1 used to reprint material from Mick Anglo’s original run.

This is easily one of the best comic books I’ve ever read, and is one of the reasons why I fell in love with not only the medium but the stories inside.

5 out of 5 stars

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On Writing…..

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…on art, on being creative:

“Work hard
Think
Cultivate silence
Plan diligently
Plumb your own soul
And try, with every fibre of your being, to get better and better and better……”

James Ellroy

It’s just that simple, and that hard.

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The International Auto Show 2018 – Toronto – Part 1

This event has been held in Toronto, Ontario since 1974 and is staged annually in February at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It draws an average of 300,000 visitors throughout its showing from Ontario and Western New York.

The International AutoShow in partnership with AutoTrader exhibits over 1,000 cars, trucks, and SUVs as well as, concept cars, exotics, classics, motorcycles and alternative energy vehicles.

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Twitter: https://twitter.com/A_G_Ferguson

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Comic Book Review – Superman Unchained (2013 – 2014): Deluxe Edition (The New 52)

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After enjoying Superman’s crazed 1950’s high speculative fiction (SF) watermark—including every shade of Kryptonite—in terms of “re-boots,” I’m a huge fan of the Superman in action in Dennis O’Neil and Curt Swan’s 1971 “The Sandman Saga,” running across Superman (Vol. 1) issues: #233 – 235, 237 – 238, and 240 – 242, and edited by the magnificent Julius Schwartz.

But even Grant Morrison struggled to give us a clear distillation of New 52-era Superman, ramping up ample thematic tropes from creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original “Fanfare for the Common Man” ethos, born and bred somewhat in Philip Wylie’s 1930 potboiler, “Gladiator.” But I still felt little kinship to the current take on the Man of Steel—that is until Batman scribe Scott Snyder (fair enough: he redefined the Dark Knight for our era in a way that genuinely works, and it appears Tom King is following up quite nicely) breathed life into a quickly flagging New 52 vision by penning an unconventional, completely cinematic buddy action film pairing Superman with Wraith, an ultra-powerful alien who, at first, gives Big Blue a run for his money as a rival.

Wraith has an actual “world view,” one completely opposed to that of the Man of Steel, as Wraith sees his having been co-opted by the government as better for the world, and Superman as the naïve new flash in the pan sailing through the skies. Wraith wants nothing of fame. He’s been performing black-ops for United States government with abandon for years. Rather than mere mid-air fisticuffs, the reader gets genuine ideologies in conflict, as the two ultra-powerful beings clearly have different things in mind in terms of what it means to protect the earth—even if that means an occasional genuflection in opposition force General Lane’s direction.

Author Scott Snyder hurls many a plot-thread into the air, and Jim Lee illustrates each with gusto, even managing to make the character design on Wraith rise above, say, the mere Mongul homage it could have been. Collected as a nice stand-alone book, the story is filled with funny asides that work, such as Lana Lang’s comment to Lois Lane, regarding Wonder woman: “Did you know they’re dating?” Between that and Wraith acting as an only marginally accepted mentor as the two ultimately have to team, forging Superman’s best outing since Kurt Buseik’s all-too-brief run.

 

4 out of 5 stars

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Logan (2017) – Movie Review

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“Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.” Logan (Hugh Jackman)

God is allowing us to enjoy the last in the X-Men /Wolverine cycle with Hugh Jackman having endured 17 years of pumping up to give adolescent males a reason to get up for the demands of an unforgiving world. However, this film, Logan, is not all blood and guts—it presents an aging hero coming to terms with the natural degeneration of his greatness and his legacy.

It’s really all about how these mutants, who clearly represent the fringes of society with odd residents marginalized by the homogeneity of the world. Inevitability hangs over this substantial hero saga, especially an iteration that suggests what even super heroes long for— immortality through lineage or enduring philosophy.

As the founder of the mutant school, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), tells it to Wolverine: “This is what life looks like: people love each other. You should take a moment . . . .” The film is suffused with a sense of the importance of family, not just Logan and his daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen), but also the new generation of mutants who must band together to survive.

The heroism turns on love rather than technology. The love is familial, in this case Logan discovering his daughter then sacrificing his safety to escort her to Eden, a place with other child mutants, who must hide from the dark forces bent on using them as soldiers. Although such bonding is the stuff of cliché, this film makes the growing love and sacrifice believable.

In the end, the search has been to discover what it’s like to live and love normally. Albeit briefly. Amidst the sturm and drang of violent, bloody super hero films, and this one has as much violence as any other, the discovery of homely love is the greatest adventure of all.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) – Movie Review

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The problem with making a film about the origin of the mutant super-hero Wolverine is that he was never meant to have an origin. He was created as a throwaway character for an issue of The Incredible Hulk, then got picked up as a supporting character for the revamping of the X-Men. No one really thought he was important enough to have his own origin, but he became one of the most popular comic book characters of the last 30 years. That led to a series of attempts to graft a powerful and moving beginning onto a character that was only intended to be a badass with a cool gimmick. But instead of a simple but profound start like “Strange visitor from another planet” or “With great power comes great responsibility”, Wolverine got an origin that became increasingly convoluted and overwrought as more and more was added to it over time. That’s reflected in this movie, which actually crams at least three distinct origin tales into 107 minutes. Throw in the traditional “summer movie” boatload of explosions, gunfire and combat and there’s not much room left for a good story.

I mean, you know that scene where someone kneels over the body of a dead loved one and screams “Nooooooooo!” to the heavens? This movie has two scenes like that. It has a shot of Wolverine walking into the camera as a huge explosion goes off behind him. There’s a character who is clearly established as being a mass murderer, but then the film suddenly decides that being a mass murderer isn’t that big a deal. Not to mention that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a movie that literally stops to explain its own ending 15 minutes before it actually happens.

All that said, this isn’t a bad film. The action sequences are all pretty good, the acting is better than you usually get for this sort of thing and while the story is kind of a mess, it makes enough sense that you’re not left sitting in the theater thinking that every character in the movie is an idiot.

In fact, this is the rare action movie where the acting is probably the best thing about it. Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Durand are legitimately funny as mutants Deadpool and The Blob. Hugh Jackman is brilliant as usual. Danny Huston as William Stryker and Liev Schreiber and Sabretooth give probably the best performances of the film. It’s not always easy to play a younger version of a character already portrayed by a fine actor, but Huston makes Stryker just similar enough to the man from X-Men 2 and is able to give him a little more depth. Schreiber brings real emotion and a sense of legitimacy his furry mutant. His Sabretooth isn’t just a prop for Wolverine’s story, but a living, breathing character in his own right.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine tells a story that was never meant to be told. It doesn’t do it very well, but that it can do it at all without being a total disaster is something of an achievement. This movie doesn’t have a personal element that ever rises above the cliché and it has none of the broader moral or societal points that were found in the X-trilogy itself. This is just a big, dumb, fun “summer movie” and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

6 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek: Beyond (2016) – Movie Review

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The third mission of the U.S.S Enterprise in the rebooted alternative timeline version of the original “Star Trek” goes a little less boldly than its two predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The most notable change is that J.J. Abrams abandoned the captain’s chair (for the other franchise starting with “Star”) and handed duties to Justin Lin of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. On scripting duties, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung take over from Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Orci and Abrams still retain roles as producers, but that’s a pretty significant creative shift, and “Star Trek Beyond” ends up with a much different look and feel.

Tonally, 2009’s “Star Trek” and also “Star Trek Into Darkness” were a bit darker, more dramatic and theme-driven blockbusters. This was in following with the mold of most franchise reboots at the time, which demanded more grit and maturity to elevate ‘geeky’ pop-culture source material for 21st century sensibilities. “Beyond” jettisons that notion into the vacuum of outer space.

This should come as no surprise given Lin’s proclivities with the “Fast & Furious” movies, which made their fortune on wowing audiences with outlandish action sequences and a familiar, lovable ensemble cast. The formula works for the “Star Trek” universe, because nothing seems too ridiculous in space, plus most audiences are familiar with the current crew of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and John Cho. They’ve earned a chance to just have some fun.

“Beyond” is definitely fun, maybe bordering on mindless. It trades in the dramatic elements and character-building conflict of the last two films for a standalone outer space adventure. In that sense, it’s more in the tradition of older “Star Trek” movies, which operated independently and felt like long “Star Trek” episodes.

After a few years of status quo space exploration, the Enterprise crew docks in a snow globe-like starbase called Yorktown. There, the Federation picks up a distress signal from an alien who says her ship and crew are in danger on the far side of a treacherous nearby nebula. The Enterprise springs into action, but after they navigate to the other end of the nebula, they’re viciously attacked by an alien force and stranded on the aliens’ planet.

This first major action set piece is a pretty exhilarating launching pad into the bulk of the story, and it comes not a moment too soon. In classic fashion, it splits the crew up into small groups, and the second act sees these teams trying to reunite and escape from the clutches of Krall (Idris Elba), who is looking for a weapon of mass destruction in the crew’s possession. A bit of a “Mission: Impossible” factor (another Paramount franchise with Simon Pegg) sneaks in here as well, though the plot isn’t quite as clever.

The movie really hearkens back to “Star Trek” episodes and memorable films that take place off-ship and bring the crew to a strange new world where the audience gets to discover a new species right along with them. No knowledge of “Trek” lore required to enjoy this one, yet it’s still immersive like any good sci-fi movie should be.

This shift away from narrative continuity between films, diving into important themes and shooting for emotional catharsis is almost a relief. No film should shy away from that challenge, but there’s something pleasant about the way “Beyond” lets go of those notions and opts for a classic form of geeky science fiction that’s more about dazzling fun, witty banter and big action.

By the same token, “Beyond” lowers the “Star Trek” franchise’s ceiling. It’s still possible to have an action-filled, funny sci-fi romp that challenges its characters and tackles universal ideas beyond merely that unity is better than divisiveness. Pegg and Jung’s script is fun, but it’s clear that they were encouraged to go simple.

So the “Star Trek” franchise has traded ambition for a little more reliability. Three films in, that’s not necessarily a bad swap. Ambitious blockbusters can fall flat, and some would argue “Into Darkness” already did. When you consider that “Star Trek” is not a series that’s ever had neatly packaged trilogies or other overarching narrative structures, switching to a more episodic format helps maximize longevity. In other words, we got a slightly lesser “Star Trek” film that’s better for the future of “Star Trek.”

 

7 out of 10 stars

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