GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "W" - "Z" Page 2

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coverWelcome to Tranquility 2008 (SC TPB) 144 pages

Written by Gail Simone. Illustrated by Neil Googe, with Billy Dallas Patton.
Colours: Carrie Strachan. Letters: Travis Lanham.

Reprinting: Welcome to Tranquility #1-6, plus a short tale from Worldstorm #1 (2006-2007)

Suggested, mildly, for mature readers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Mae. 2012

Published by Wildstorm / DC Comics

After so many decades of super hero comics, there's a whole sub-genre mining it for quirky little twists on the cliches -- usually by trying to ask "what if super heroes really existed?" Joining that field is Welcome to Tranquility which is set in a small American town that acts as a retirement community for super beings who have hung up their capes and settled down to raise families -- ex-heroes (many falling into archetypes of the genre) and ex-villains (who've served their time) live next door to each other, both elderly former costumed types, as well as their kids and grandkids, many who also have powers. It's a small, quiet, Mayberry-like town, overseen by the pretty (non-powered) lady sheriff, Tomasina (Tommy) Lindo.

At least, it's quiet until a minor dust up at the local diner between some locals and some hooligans leaves a retired super hero dead -- but was it just a mishap during the fracas...or pre-meditated murder carried out in the confusion? And if so -- why? And by who?

Welcome to Tranquility is an enjoyable saga, mixing whimsy and pathos, self-reflective homage and mystery-suspense. As I say, it belongs to a kind of sub-genre of the super hero field that dates back to the 1980s -- and, truth be told, even before that (I mean, the roots of finding the "realism" under the capes dates back to the Marvel Age of the 1960s at least). There's definitely an Alan Moore-esque vibe at work here (Moore who has made this particular idiom his personal oeuvre) echoing The Watchmen and other such sagas -- if a little lighter on the Drum und Strang. It echoes The Watchmen both in the quirky revisionism of exploring the ideas of super heroes as people -- complete with frailties including growing old and even senile -- as well as the conceit of kicking off the mystery with the murder of an ex-super hero. As well, writer Gail Simone draws upon a frequent Moore trick (used in Supreme, Tom Strong, etc.) of inserting flashbacks, building a backstory for these new heroes, those pages made to look creased and faded as though old comics.

Simone has a good ear for dialogue. As well, where Simone does better than Moore (and I say this up-front as a person who has mixed feelings about a lot of Moore's stuff) is arguably a greater humanity and compassion for her characters. Moore's work can often feel a bit clinical -- as though he likes playing with form, and enjoys intellectually dissecting his characters and their neuroses, all resulting in stories that can feel...academic, even condescending. Whereas Simone generally tackles her characters and her world as people we are meant to like and care about, not as game pieces moved around a narrative chess board.

The main heroine, Sheriff Lindo, is a likeable protagonist, and the emotions and actions of the various characters generally stem from real emotions, real humanity. Even a senile aviatrix, Minxy Millions, is played for goofy humour...but it's an affectionate humour.

As such, it's a story where you care about what happens.

The story starts out deliberately slowly -- the murder not occurring until the end of the first chapter. But it becomes more complex as it progresses, as various characters become entangled in the investigation, and different threads are introduced that may (or may not) be relevant. Making it a fairly rich read that justifies its page count.

With that said, I can quibble a bit about the "mystery" aspect. I've grumbled in other reviews that mysteries often seem to be something comic book writers do very poorly, that even in comics that are billed as "mysteries" (such as some Batman sagas) they aren't well done. To be fair, comic book writers don't have a monopoly on shoddy mysteries. Anyway...in the case of Welcome to Tranquility, it's not a bad mystery and at least it keeps you turning the pages. But it's not necessarily a great mystery. For the first few issues, Lindo interviews a few possible suspects, who give non-committal responses, and we don't really feel like we've learned anything that progresses the investigation. Indeed, I'd almost wonder if Simone started writing this before she really had the mystery solved in her mind, because it's not really till a few issues into it that we get clues that will prove relevant to the solution. There are one or two early references that do have a resonance in the climax, but it's more that Simone is foreshadowing the solution, rather than laying clues (that is: there's no way you would be able to infer anything from the references until the end).

Once you get to the end, the solution tends to revolve around solutions to things...that we didn't even know were questions (and it's not always clear how certain people knew what they knew, or made the deductive leaps they made).

Even the solution to the initial murder is a bit anti-climactic. After all, part of the puzzle is how was he killed in the middle of a crowd...but the solution is basically, well, the killer just was lucky!

As mentioned, the modern story is peppered with brief flashbacks to old adventures, done as though old comics. It's a gimmick that's been used before (notably by Alan Moore) but Simone and artist Neil Googe don't quite do it correctly. The scenes are supposed to be written in an Old School style, like old comics...yet then there will be dialogue about characters ending up "in the sack" together...not exactly the sort of innuendo you'd really read in old comics. (There's a slight "mature readers" vibe throughout). While Googe doesn't really alter his style significantly to really create a contrast between the "old comics" and the "modern reality". Likewise, part of the idea is to suggest the old comics were based on real adventures...but altered for publication. But that's a bit of a cheat when the end solution relates to some of these flashback adventures...but they still provided no clue to the reader, because it turns out that isn't how it went down anyway! (I'm also not sure if Simone is deliberately trying to blur the line between reality and fantasy when she has some characters who were former stars of an old TV show...except the show was a cartoon!)

Googe's art is generally clear and energetic -- but I'll admit, not my preferred style. That is, it's of a cartoony bent, with angular faces, exaggerated muscles (on those as still have muscles!) and caricatured characters -- a bit as if the old Archie Comics style was blended with a super hero look. It's a common style today, evoking the look of a lot of modern artists -- with echoes of everyone from Roger Cruz to Tony Moore (in every generation there can be certain schools of style -- in the 1970s, Neal Adams, Mike Nasser, Mike Grell, Rich Buckler and others were operating from the same play book). Sometimes this angular cartooniness works for me -- sometimes not as much. I liked it well enough here -- it tells the tale. But it is arguably an odd fit for a series which, in a sense, is supposed to be contrasting the super hero fantasy with the realism of aging heroes and family squabbles, when the art isn't that realistic. And, as mentioned, it might have been nice if Googe had tweaked his style a bit for the flashback/old comics scenes.

Perhaps one of the biggest -- pleasant -- surprises of Welcome to Tranquility is it tells a story -- beginning, middle and end. The series kept going -- 6 more issues in the regular series, then a follow-up mini-series (then I guess a one shot that, *yawn*, attempted to tie the series in with the greater Wildstorm Universe!). But Simone tells a story in these pages, so that when you get to the final page, you don't feel like it's simply been a prologue to a larger epic, or where a dozen threads are left dangling, to tease us into the next arc. It feels like a mini-series...that then spawned sequels, rather than simply the opening act in an on going monthly.

Which makes it a "graphic novel" -- a nice read for your book shelf, and further nudges it in the direction of something like The Watchmen.

Cover price: $19.99 USA.


cover by Mike MayhewWomen of Marvel, vol. 1 2006 (SC TPB) 224 pgs.

Written and illustrated by various.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man #86, The Cat #1, Shanna, the She-Devil #1, Ms. Marvel #1 (1st series), Dazzler #1, The Avengers #221 (1st series), The Uncanny Xmen #151, 152, 182, 244 (1970-1989) with covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

This is another one of those TPBs where it's almost hard to specify to which book I'm referring. The name "Women of Marvel" has been applied to I think more than one TPB, plus a few comic book one-shots. Even then, though I list this as "volume one", technically the book itself doesn't carry that designation, presumably because when it was released, they hadn't necessarily planned on releasing a "volume two" -- though they eventually did.

Anyway, this collects a variety of stories starring or otherwise featuring various heroines -- some fairly high profile, others more obscure. Why these characters, and not others, and why these stories, and not others -- who knows? Part of it may be to deliberately reflect a variety of styles by covering almost 20 years. So for the Black Widow, a character who veers back and forth between being a nominal "super hero" and more a gritty spy, and who has had solo adventures, we kick off the book instead with an Amazing Spider-Man issue in which she guest stars (by Stan Lee, John Romita, Sr. and Jim Mooney). Other characters are represented by solo adventures in their own comics, while various X-Men heroines are featured in X-Men comics in which the women dominate. The She-Hulk, featured on the TPB's cover and, arguably, one of the more high profile characters...is actually least represented inside, her appearance being in an Avengers issue (by David Michelinie and Bob Hall) in which the team is recruiting new members and the Wasp organizes a get together of many female heroines.

And the overall result is...pretty good. Even ignoring the female focus, the fun of a collection like this is its variety -- no overriding theme, just a grab bag snap shot of the Marvel U. A fun sampler, each turn of the page bringing something new. Though even then, there are continuity bits that give you a glimpse of Marvel's constantly morphing (or mutating) narrative, as one issue features the introduction of Ms. Marvel...while a later issue focuses on X-gal Rogue who absorbed Ms. Marvel's powers and memories (granted, a novice reader might not realize that Ms. Marvel was still around, in her own body).

Covering almost two decades, you can see the evolving comic book styles, the early issues somewhat simple and corny in execution -- yet entertaining and affecting for all that. Because some of the issues are "origin" issues, they maybe offer more bang for your buck than a later plot, so Shanna #1(by Carole Seuling, Steve Gerber and George Tuska) and The Cat #1 are both interesting, densely written tales. The Cat (by Linda Fite and Marie Severin -- the most female dominated creative team in this collection -- with inker Wally Wood) is a kind of obscure character, even though she would evolve into Tigra, and her costume would be adopted by Patsy Walker as The Hellcat. Ms. Marvel #1 is by 1970s A-listers Gerry Conway and John Buscema and is also an entertaining effort -- introducing an intriguing concept to the character, that Ms. Marvel suffers from split personality, unaware of her dual identities (an idea I believe was dropped quickly). Ironically, of all the comics here, it's the one that most made me semi-interested in following the later adventures...save I was pretty sure Conway and Buscema dropped out after only a few issues. Admittedly, it's a bit unsatisfying, as the true origin is left "to be continued", but the core conflict (involving the Scorpion kidnapping Spider-Man regular J.J. Jameson) is seeming resolved in the one issue.

The Avengers issues is a bit of an odd ball, more light-hearted and talky (when the menace finally arises...it's more a joke) and in which the female focus doesn't even arise until toward the end. But, again, that's the appeal of this being a collection -- the diversity in stories and even tones.

The collection also ends up being a bit of a showcase for The X-Men (four issues are reprinted from that comic) which seemed to evolve into Marvel's most female centric title, and for Chris Claremont, who seemed to be Marvel's point man on female characters (including writing runs of Spider-Woman and Ms. Marvel). So we have a two-parter that's basically an action-thriller story, involving both the Hellfire Club and the Sentinels -- it's an X-Men story, with the guys still involved, but the focus is on Storm and Kitty Pryde, and the chief villain, Emma Frost, making it appropriate for this "Women" theme. It's twisty and fast paced, if suffering from some ludicrousness. To whit: Kitty's parents decide to enroll her in a school run by the evil Emma Frost...and the X-Men just let them! Apparently protecting their secret ids and not telling Kitty's parents they're X-Men takes precedence over handing Kitty to an evil telepath! It's drawn by Jim Sherman and Bob McLeod, neither man on top form, but overall, it's an exciting romp. Then comes an effective Rogue focused story (drawn by John Romita, Jr), with a mix of action and deep character introspection (and expounding on that Ms. Marvel thing I mentioned earlier). Then the final X-Men story here reflects, well, the sometimes undisciplined side of Claremont. Again focusing on a gaggle of female X-Men, and introducing Jubilee, it's essentially a light-hearted tale of the gals going on a shopping spree and encountering comic relief mutant hunters (modelled after the Ghostbusters). It's not that funny, it's not that interesting, and seems -- literally -- intended just to give artist Marc Silvestri a chance to do glamour illustrations as the X-gals try on various outfits!

Though probably the weakest story here is Dazzler #1. Dazzler was never a critical favourite (though her solo series lasted longer than most other female Marvel heroes), but though uneven (and sometimes bad) I have some affection for her (early) issues, for its atypical heroine -- namely, Dazzler wasn't a super hero who fought crime, she was a gal trying to live her life, who found herself draw into fighting criminals. She was the ultimate reluctant heroine. They would later lose that as she became more of a conventional crime fighter (even joining the X-Men as an X-Men issue here demonstrates). But I liked that early everywoman quality to her. But this first issue is just bland, and clunkily written. Tom DeFalco has never struck me as a particularly great writer, and here it feels as though he's really just going through the motions -- cramming in so many guest stars, it's as if he has no interest in his lead character. It's drawn by John Romita, Jr, an artist who would evolve into a fan favourite, and develop a nice sense of style and composition (as represented by the Rogue-focused X-Men issue in this collection which he also draws) but at this point was a pretty bland, undistinguished artist (even with Alfredo Alcala's inks). And though the initial conflict resolves -- a singing competition between Dazzler and the sorceress the Enchantress! -- it's ultimately "to be continued" as the Enchantress vows revenge.

What's interesting about some of the early comics reprinted here is how reasonably sincere they seem -- maybe having some female writers like Linda Fite and Carole Seuling helped. There's a feminist/women power sub-text to The Cat and Shanna, without tipping over into self-conscious sermonizing. Indeed, it makes you wonder how far we've really come when you consider the Shanna story here, about a determined environmentalist in the jungle, pretty but demurely depicted by George Tuska (with just a hint of titillation in that she sleeps in the buff) with more recent Shanna revivals like Frank Cho's mini-series which seemed to exist just to show a big breasted babe in a skimpy bikini tear apart dinosaurs!

I don't object to sex and sexploitation -- in the right context. But what's interesting in this collection is how little there is of that. Those expecting some parade of pin-ups and Good Girl Art will be disappointed, as the characters here are treated just as respectfully as any male hero. Nor does it feel too self-consciously "girly" -- the pink cover hue notwithstanding (save the X-gals going shopping issue!)

There's little here that's a "classic", or that would warrant too much attention on its own...yet with that said, very few of the stories here are bad, either. Making it a nice tome, a collection of stories for all seasons. Marvel and DC rarely do such books (most TPBs focusing on a specific character or story arc) but they can be fun. Most of the core plots are self-contained, even if sub-plots are left dangling -- even the Dazzler issue doesn't end on a cliff hanger. Which makes this better than some collections I've seen where issues are reprinted regardless of the fact that they are just a chapter in a larger arc, and unsatisfying on their own.

Whether you really want a collection focusing on Marvel's feminine -- and feminist -- side, or simply want a grab bag of generally decent Bronze Age tales, reflecting a variety of tones and creators, many from the upper echelons of the field, Women of Marvel (vol. 1) is a satisfying effort.

Cover price: $24.99 USA


World's Finest - painted cover by Steve RudeWorld's Finest 1991 (SC TPB) 150 pgs.

Written by Dave Gibbons. Pencils by Steve Rude. Inks by Karl Kesel.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: Bill Oakley. Editor: Mike Carlin.

Reprinting: World's Finest #1-3 (1990 prestige mini-series)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

This is comprised of some wonderful strengths...and some frustrating weaknesses. The story, such as it is, has villains Lex Luthor and the Joker, scourges of Metropolis and Gotham City respectively, taking an interest in each other's city, leading Superman and Batman to work together (at least, to co-ordinate their efforts) to combat their foes.

For the historically minded, the title derives from the comic, World's Finest, which from the 1950s to the mid-'80s featured team-up stories between Batman and Superman (there was a brief run in the early '70s of Superman teaming up with other characters).

There's a bit of homage at work here and a kind of charming simplicity to the story. Though there's the occasional murder, there's a gentleness that is missing from a lot of modern comics -- even a lot of action scenes are more about rescuing people than pounding bad guys. And in the treatment of the Joker we're supposed to accept the old fashioned comic book convention that, despite his string of heinous crimes, he's somehow served his time and is free to wander the streets with impunity. Likewise, the notion that Superman and Batman would panic and call on each other simply because a couple of (let's face it) minor villains have come to town, or that it would be the talk of the news services, is hard to swallow if taken in the context of modern, more "realistic" comics.

Steve Rude's art is lovely to look at. Unsure as I am of his normal style, I wonder if there's an attempt at homage here, too. The art is modern (at least, the better modern artists), with detailed panels and well-proportioned figures, but it's married with a warm restraint and an appealing evocation of Supe's creator Joe Shuster in the depiction of Superman. Of course, Rude's Batman reminded me of David Mazzuccelli from Batman: Year One, so maybe I'm just seeing things that aren't there.

Rude's art is intricate, without being busy. You can scrutinize panel after panel for the little details (Superman munching a donut) and amusing little extras he puts into the backgrounds. In that sense, he's reminiscent of Alex Ross. This would seem to clearly be a labour of love. Given the painted cover, I thought I'd be disappointed by the more conventional ink and colour art inside, but not so. It was wonderfully enthralling, well coloured by the always reliable Steve Oliff.

Dave Gibbons is best known as an artist, but he crafts nice dialogue, shifting effortlessly from scenes told entirely without words to panels cluttered with dialogue. But cluttered in a good way (with Oakley's letters reminiscent of John Costanza). Combined with Rude's intricate art, there are panels that are delightful to read, picking up on all the nuances in words and image. There are some nice character bits and heartfelt scenes, but overall, there's a light-heartedness and the story takes place over the Christmas holidays. World's Finest is clearly meant to be just...fun.

The story involving Luthor and the Joker is weak, but it's interwoven with a plotline involving am orphanage. Initially, the premise seems an odd choice for an expensive mini-series, the first major teaming of Bats and Supes since DC overhauled its comics in the mid-'80s. No earth-shattering threats, just a small scale thing about mysterious doings at an orphanage. But, of course, what better story to unite comicdoms two most famous orphans than a story involving orphans? Viewed that way, it seems the perfect premise and reinforces what seems to be Gibbons and Rude's intent: to tell a story with heart.

I started on the third and final book completely won over. Sure, there were short-comings, but Gibbons and Rude had made me forgive all that. It was their game to lose.

Unfortunately, they do, somewhat.

By the final book, the orphange plot has been wrapped up, and we're left with the Joker and Luthor. But it was the orphange plot, thin as it was, that kept the interest level in the first two books, by providing questions that had to be answered, and original characters.

After all is said and done, Gibbons fails to deliver a plot involving the big name baddies. The two villains have got into a feud and the final third is just Superman and Batman mopping up after them as they blow up each other's establishments. There's no point, no purpose, and no narrative direction. It's just a string of action scenes (like a nice one where Superman intercedes in a potential nuclear power plant melt down) that never go anywhere -- the heroes never even defeat the villains who end up simply calling a truce!

Throughout the entire series there's a certain stream-of-consciousness to the thing, with little sense of one scene building on the last, heading to a climax. I'm not really sure what Luthor and the Joker were doing, or why, or why they decided to expend so much energy harrassing each other. Gibbons delivers the goods in dialogue and scenes, but he doesn't seem to have a grip on that pesky little concept called plotting.

There are other weaknesses. The story contrasts the two heroes, and there are some clever parallel scenes. Unfortunately, the parallels are a little too close, undermining the concept. There just isn't a big contrast between the two -- not that I'm saying there should be. But that's the premise behind DC's current vision of its two major stars.

There may've been a certain ambivalence on the part of Gibbons and Rude toward DC's New World Order. The old Superman and Batman were buddies, the current versions aren't. But in this series clearly steeped in nostalgic affection, there's an attempt to juggle the two versions: at one point Batman says he and Superman are "hardly friends", yet later Superman gives Batman a Christmas present and Batman invites Superman to spend the holidays at Wayne Manor. It's a particularly smartly written scene, memorably human, and underscoring an awkwardness between the two. But the scene shows that, though they clearly aren't as close as the original version, they're more cordial than people who, supposedly, aren't friends.

Other attempts at parallels force the characters into odd situations. Perry White acting for Superman like James Gordon does for Batman, as an avuncular confidant. But surely Lois or Jimmy are closer to Superman than Perry? And the Joker is presented as a business man, complete with property holdings. In other words, as a minor version of Lex Luthor. There's too much of a sameness in things. Even action scenes (there are no less than three sequences of rescues from burning buildings).

As well, Superman and Batman spend a long time co-ordinating their efforts, without quite teaming up. Surely that's the point, though, to see the two heroes (eventually) side by side in the climax? But then, that's my point...there isn't really a climax, per se.

Gibbons employs a simple cinematic picture-dialogue technique -- no thought balloons or omniscient text ccaptions. Normally I feel that style fails to exploit the full range of the medium. But here, it works surprisingly well (aided, no doubt, by Rude's facial expressions) with scenes compelling. But there still remains a certain superficiality, a lack of insight that adds to the overall breeziness and odd character interpretations. Batman as Bruce Wayne is usually portrayed as a man who pretends to be a womanizer...yet here, he actually seems to be one, hitting on Lois Lane.

Ultimately, World's Finest combines great art and dialogue with an old fashioned sensibility that's quite delightful. It'll probably be fun to re-read in December, when the story takes place and it can exploit the yuletide spirit. But the unfocused narrative and lack of strong ideas ultimately hobble the thing, making the parts greater than the sum. Frankly, I'm almost tempted to suggest that if you can only find the first two books, they might be worth picking up just on their own. It's enjoyable...but disappointing.

As an aside, the bones of this concept was later adapted to a three part episode of the Batman/Superman Adventures cartoon, which was, then, adapted back to comic form.

This s a review of the story serialized in the World's Finest mini-series.

Cover price: __ /$19.95 USA. (published by DC Comics)


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