GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "Q" - "R"

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The Question: Zen and Violence 2008 (SC TPB) 176 pages

cover by Bill SienkiewiczWritten by Denny O'Neil. Pencils by Denys Cowan. Inks by Rick Magyar.
Colours: Tatjana Wood. Letters: Gaspar. Editor: Mike Gold.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Reprinting: The Question #1-6 (1986-1987)

Number of readings: 2

Suggested for mature readers

Published by DC Comics

I thought I had read somewhere that #1-5 of the Question had earlier been collected in a TPB...but I've never managed to confirm that.

The question? What do I think of The Question?

The answer? It's complicated.

Created in the 1960s by Steve Ditko, The Question mustered only a few short back-up stories, and one solo issue (Mysterious Suspense #1), but made a bit of an impression. That original Mysterious Suspense story (which I read in a reprint) was an interesting concept -- essentially Ibsen's An Enemy of the People -- about a crusading reporter (and super hero) whose principals make him a pariah. Unfortunately, it was heavy handed and silly in its didacticism, seeming more an essay than a story as Ditko (and co-writer D.G. Glanzman) seemed to be hammering home their Objectivist philosophy but in a way that seemed simple minded and contradictory (which may be true of that Ayn Rand-promoted philosophy in general).

Jump ahead decades and DC Comics has acquired the rights to Charlton Comics stable of heroes. Because this was in the wake of DC's reality altering Crisis on Infinite Earths, it's not really clear if this is supposed to be a continuation of the Ditko character...or a re-invention of the concept. Probably a little of the latter.

The Question is Vic Sage (born Charles Victor Szasz), crusading TV journalist whose people skills are decidedly rusty -- in short, he's supposed to be obnoxious. And he plies his trade in corrupt Hub City. While investigating civic corruption, the Question is beaten and left for dead (making one of the most off-beat cliff hangers for a first issue) but is nursed back to health...and given a crash course in Eastern philosophy (and fighting), supposedly allowing him to undergo a bit of a spiritual metamorphosis. He returns to Hub City to take on the corrupt mayor (actually, the real power is an insane minister who pulls the strings) and resume his battle against crime and corruption.

The series was only a modest success at the time, and though the character has waxed and waned in popularity (like with so many properties, I think DC has recently killed off Vic and has another character as the Question!), the series made enough of an impression that DC has begun collecting the entire run in a series of TPBs.

Writer Denny O'Neil is well regarded by fans and pros alike. Unfortunately, I tend to be more skeptical. I've read his stuff I've liked...and a lot of stuff I didn't. The Question was supposed to be where O'Neil could really show his mettle, in a slightly mature readers forum that broke away from the cartooniness of a lot of super hero comics -- the Question was meant to be a real man in a real world setting.

There's a bit of hubris involved here, as O'Neil takes an existing character -- than reinvents him to suit his tastes. Ditko's Question as a mouthpiece for Objectivism may've been awkward...but the notion of a character whose very adherence to single-minded principals making him difficult to like can actually be intriguing. Yet O'Neil's Question is more rude...just 'cause he's rude. And the whole martial arts/sensei thing just seems too comic booky -- not to mention it allows O'Neil to drag out one of his pet creations, the mercenary Lady Shiva, whose actions are pivotal to the Question's recovery...but not well explained if you were unfamiliar with the character. It also maybe creates a paradox. The Question was supposed to be as close to "realistic" as a super hero could be...but once he starts using martial arts skills, it loses the sense of an everyman hero.

O'Neil has often struck me as a guy who seems to have an uncomfortable fascination with violence -- even as he's clearly ambivalent about it. He often does stories about heroes grappling with the notion of violence, and their conflicted feelings toward it -- including here where initially it is suggested The Question enjoys fighting. Except...you don't really get any sense that there's much change in him after his spiritual awakening. The problem with stories "dealing" with violence is they tend to be stories that revel in violence. And O'Neil's villains are, by and large, sleazy, irredeemable creeps. One might argue that if you're going to do a series that's meant to be "realistic", reality is that few people are true absolutes. But there's no attempt to create any nuance in the villains, or even given them much motivation.

The series was marketed as a sophisticated comic grappling with philosophical ideas (the original comics actually included O'Neil's recommended reading list of books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) -- and where editorials trumpeted the supposedly radical idea of a hero who had a secret identity...but not an alter ego! (That is, he acted the same in or out of costume -- no melancholy Peter Parker becoming the wisecracking Spider-Man, no mild mannered Clark Kent becoming the dynamic Superman). But a lot of it seems kind of simplistic and one dimensional and too steeped in a "meanness" (even people on the street are rude and surly in this town).

Yet...I found myself enjoying the Question. A lot.

And that's because as much as I might intellectualize it, and suggest O'Neil and company aren't delivering the smarts they think they are...O'Neil may very well be playing at the top of his game here. Even though this is, essentially, a super hero story with fights and action...it's driven by the characters and the story more than the fights. And sometimes, when done well, talky scenes can be every bit as gripping, as exciting, as any action-splash page. As well, there's an unusualness to the plotting, a sense O'Neil is letting the stories unfold obliquely rather than sticking to some rigid formula (page two, fight scenes, page five, hero discovers clue). Crammed with dialogue and mood, you get a lot for your money per issue, and O'Neil takes the time to dress up some of his characters with quirks.

At times the comic is as much about the city as The Question, as O'Neil tells stories where the Question is still a principal player...but not necessarily the centre piece of the tale.

Sometimes I really don't like Denys Cowan's art -- kind of crude and scratchy and hasty -- and sometimes I love it as it evokes a grittiness and blends elements of caricature and exaggeration with a kind raw realism (where even Vic isn't drawn as movie star handsome). There are scenes where proportions and dimensions are awkwardly drawn, and others that are well rendered. But ultimately...the art works. In a way, there's more than a hint of Frank Miller in the art style. Cowan's style defines the series and its world, lending it a palpable atmosphere. And the fact that O'Neil and Cowan stuck with it for its entire run suggests both men were kind of grooving to the gig.

The bottom line is, if I divorce my opinion from whether the series lives up to its own aspirations, and simply take it as a page turner...it works. Whatever I may think about O'Neil's world of grungy people in a corrupt city, the fact is, he creates a consistent reality, and does manage to people it with quirky little characters, with some deftly written scenes and flashes of human interest. And where there is some true suspense generated...precisely because of its, at times, low-key understatedness.

O'Neil and Cowan combine to create something that is flawed...but oddly compelling.

There's a deliberately, but bracingly effective, ugliness to The Question that anticipated Frank Miller's Sin City. But O'Neil manages to keep a better reign on it, not becoming the over-the-top parody the Sin City stories can seem like.

One final (irrelevant) aside: I once had been toying with writing a story that could have the trappings of a super hero tale, but would seem more real. So I gradually built up the idea in my head of a story about a reporter in a corrupt city who would wear a trench coat and hat, with a featureless mask. The gimmick being that he could hang out in bars or on the street, and no one would notice anything strange -- yet if they tried to describe him, they wouldn't really remember any features. And if seen up close, he would have the unsettling appearance of someone with a facial disfigurement. The point of my story? Just that I came up with that...long before I had even heard of the Question! Things like that make you realize that sometimes, when two creators come up with similar ideas...maybe it really was a coincidence!

Anyway, reading these comics, the series is a lot like its main character...something that's hard to like, but easier to love.

This is a review of the stories as they were original serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.99 USA


The Ray: In a Blaze of Power 1992 (SC TPB) 132 pages

coverWritten by Jack C. Harris. Pencils by Joe Quesada. Inks and finishes by Art Nichols.
Colours: John Cebollero. Letters: Steve Haynie. Editor: Jim Owsley (a.k.a. Christopher Priest)

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (1992)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

The Ray was a Golden Age hero with light-based powers originally published by Quality Comics. After DC Comics acquired the rights to Quality's catalogue, they teamed him up with other Quality heroes as part of the short-lived 1970s comic, The Freedom Fighters (dimensional refugees from an alternate earth where the Nazis had won World War II). In the aftermath of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which DC (initially) eliminated the concept of alternate earths, the Ray was then just reimagined as a regular 1940s hero.

Which then led to a revived Ray. But instead of simply telling new adventures of the Ray, or re-inventing the concept, this was a second generation spin on the character. Ray Terrill (hereafter called Raymond to cut down on the confusion) is a young man who spent most of his life in darkness, told that he had a fatal allergy to sun light. But when his father dies, he learns the truth -- his father was the original Ray, and he inherited his dad's light-based (and solar powered) powers. But while trying to grapple with this, and getting his life together (and pursuing a chance re-encounter with a childhood sweetheart), he is visited by the image of the Golden Age Ray who claims that he is Raymond's real father (and that Raymond's dead father was neither the real Ray, nor Raymond's biological father) and that Raymond is needed to avert some coming crisis.

Whew! Even describing it it can be confusing with all those Rays!

And this was the premise for the original mini-series (which, in turn, led to a not especially long lived monthly series).

Written by long time comics writer and editor Jack C. Harris, and largely illustrated by a then up-and-coming Joe Quesada, Ray: In a Blaze of Power is a mixed bag.

On one hand, Harris writes some cute scenes in the "revisionist" mode (where the young Raymond's grappling with his new powers can lead as much to misadventures as adventure), with some wit and humour. In the 1970s, I think of Harris as being a kind of workmanlike writer at best, but here he clearly is up to working in a hipper, more modern style. And the story is full of plenty of wild and weird ideas that can keep you a little off balance as to where it's all headed. And though that can be good -- it's maybe also a reflection of a story that isn't always fully articulating some of its concepts. In fact, for a comic springing off a not especially high profile character, there's very little effort made to explain the original Ray and the nature of his abilities. Still, the art is very good, with Quesada already showing a fine, confident style, borrowing elements from Walt Simonson and Mike Mignola, but with his own flavour.

I found myself reading it with a moderate interest level, without quite finding it gripping. For a story that's trying to be a little bit out there and edgy, I couldn't help feeling a bit like it seemed kind of evocative at times -- but, admittedly, I've read so many comics by this point, maybe I'm not a good one to judge. But in some of its attempts to amusingly explore the difficulties in trying to deal with newly acquired super powers, I was reminded of Jim Shooter's Star Brand. Other scenes were vaguely (and only vaguely) evocative of Bill Mantlo's Jack of Hearts. Still, as I turned the pages, I was ready to sum it up as a solid effort.

Until I started thinking about it.

In a way, the problem with Harris (with Jim Owsley -- a.k.a. Christopher Priest -- as editor) clearly trying to make this quirky with some eccentric turns, is that there's a feeling Harris went for the weird...at the expense of the coherent. It's not so much that the story doesn't make sense (in a broad strokes way) so much as you could drive a truck through some of the plot holes and lapses in logic. For one thing, to keep us off balance, Raymond is constantly being told things about his origin...that an issue or two later are revealed to be lies, and not very purposeful lies. It's as if Harris just wanted to keep the scenes interesting, even if they are then negated a few scenes later. Heck, the first issue ends with the original Ray appearing to the young Raymond, beseeching him to "save my life!"...then the next issue begins simply with the Ray asking for Raymond's help -- a rather significant change in tone.

There's something of a conspiracy at work, and we learn later (not to give anything a way) that a certain pivotal event was staged for Raymond's benefit...yet as near as we can tell throughout the rest of the story, the conspiracy is comprised of about four or five people, so it's not quite clear how they had the resources to orchestrate the event in the first place.

Nor is it clear why Raymond couldn't have been told much of this stuff earlier in his life. Harris drags out the mysteries by having the Golden Age Ray be evasive and speak cryptically...when he could've just explained everything right away.

When we get to the final, climactic chapter, Harris seems to be getting even more inclined to silliness, so instead of being a dramatic climax, it comes across more as a bit of a whimsical farce. And here, too, there are a lot of problems with what and how. At one point a character does something to help save the day, but it's not clear, um, what. Another character simply says, "Oh...he thought of something."

I'm still of mixed minds on the saga. The art is good and stylish, for the most part (though toward the end Quesada is providing only layouts rather than the finished pencils), there's an agreeable tone to the series, and we can sympathize with Raymond's dilemmas. There are funny bits and off beat bits...but, as I say, as a whole it suffers from a plot that is pretending to be more complex, and original, than it is, and which doesn't seem to hold up in spots to even a cursory scrutiny.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: __


The Rocketeer volume II: Cliff's New York Adventure  1996 (SC TPB) 72 pgs.

cover by Dave StevensWritten by Dave Stevens, with Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo. Illustrated by Dave Stevens, with Mike Kaluta (breakdowns), Arthur Adams, Sandy Plunkett.
Colours: Dave Stevens, Isabelle Rabarot. Letters: Carrie Spiegle. Editors: Bob Schreck, Diana Schultz.

Reprinting: The Rocketeer (series 2) #1, 2 (published by Comico) #3 (published by Dark Horse) (1988-1995)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published in over-sized tabloid format by by Dark Horse, copyright Dave Stevens.

This continues the adventures of Dave Stevens' nostalgia tinged series about a Cliff Secord, a young test pilot in the the late 1930s who gets a hold of a rocket pack that turns him into the (disguised) Rocketeer. Although I had heard of the series, I was only familiar with it through the big budget movie starring Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly as his beautiful girl friend, Jenny (in the comics her name is Betty, but it's essentially the same character). The movie was unusually faithful to the source material so that going into Cliff's New York Adventure I felt right at home.

Not that this is a "sequel" in the sense that you need to know much before hand. At least, not anymore than with any on going series. It helps, but the story is basically self contained.

Stevens is a notoriously slow producer. There was something like a seven year gap (and a change of publisher) between the publication of the second and the third issue of this story! And since he had help with the writing and even the art, it boggles the mind to wonder why it takes Stevens so long to crank out an issue. Particularly as the first two chapters -- issues -- are only fourteen pages long (the final chapter is 28 pages). In fact, there have only been a handful of Rocketeer stories published (sometimes in anthology comics like Pacific Presents and others) in the almost twenty years since Stevens first created the character!

Is it worth it? The Rocketeer is attractively drawn, with Stevens mixing elements of a lush, three dimensional semi-realism with a certain controlled cartooniness that maybe evokes Will Eisner a little. Set against the back drop of period cars and night clubs and old fashioned exclamations ("Holy Moses!"), this is atmospheric and gee whiz fun. The story has Cliff racing from L.A. to New York to try and win back his actress girlfriend, Betty, who's all set to sail for Europe with a sleazy Hollywood type. Then he gets drawn into an investigation by a mysterious freelance crime fighter. Members of a circus troupe to which Cliff once belonged are being murdered, and Cliff may be on the killer's list.

The first chapter focuses exclusively on the Cliff-Betty story, and it maintains interest quite well, with nary a rocket pack in sight. But then that part of the story ends and the rest is devoted to the crime-thriller plot.

It's an O.K. story, but it's pretty rudimentary and nothing very special. It's also a little cutesy. In the Rocketeer movie, real life figure Howard Hughes had a significant supporting part, which added to the fun and period ambience. But here Stevens throws in a homage to a fictional character, as the mystery investigator Cliff hooks up with is supposed to evoke The Shadow. Essentially, the conceit is "what if Cliff had been one of the Shadow's agents?" You probably don't need to recognize his employer, Mr. Jonas, as the Shadow (in fact, one assumes for copyright reasons, he isn't really the Shadow). But it makes the story awkward, regardless. It's a cute way of thrusting Cliff into the investigation, but it's also distracting, lacking organic plausibility and making the whole story like some team-up comic.

Perhaps what led to my chief ambivalence toward this is the comparison to the movie. By contrast, Cliff's New York Adventure seems like, well, a run of the mill comicbook. It's enjoyable, but nothing that riveting. A big part of the movie revolved around the romance between Cliff and Jenny (Betty) and this book starts out seeming the same way. But then Betty fades into the background, robbing the story of an emotional/romantic core. And, for that matter, since part of Stevens fame is his propensity toward "Good Girl Art" (drawing sexy gals), having Betty disappear from the story also robs it of some, uh, aesthetic appeal, too.

There's also surprisingly little use of Cliff's rocket pack, as if Stevens was beginning to regret the whole concept, preferring to just tell a two- fisted adventure about a normal guy.

Because this was published over so many years, there's an evolution in style. The colours get more elaborate (though not better) and in the final chapter Stevens starts employing bigger panels and lots of wordless fight scenes. Unfortunately. It means the 28 page final chapter doesn't seem any longer than the 14 page earlier chapters.

This is entertaining, but a bit slight, lacking the emotional heart that made the movie so enjoyable. There's even a kind of sexist approach to Betty, with her dumping Cliff to run off with a man she doesn't love in order to forward her career. Stevens clearly doesn't hold it against her, and she does come around eventually, but it's an awkward, shallow characterization for our heroine. As well, the crime Cliff investigates is curiously handled. The killer is given a poignant motivation, but neither Cliff -- and, by extension Stevens -- really seems to feel any empathy for him, or even any guilt over the events that led to the killer's actions! Actually, the killer confused me, since he was a character that appeared in the movie -- but this is the first time, in the Rocketeer comics, that he has appeared. In other words, he isn't the character from the movie (in much the same way that the Joker in the Batman movie killed Batman's parents...but the Joker in the comics didn't -- they aren't the same Joker).

Original cover price: $13.95 CDN./$9.95 USA.


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