Star Wars: Bloodline by Claudia Gray – A Book Review

Written by Claudia Gray, I hoped Bloodline would equal or even surpass her wonderfully engaging Star Wars book entitled Lost Stars.  I’m sorry to say that it didn’t.

Bloodline is good, but it’s not great.  It features a forty-something Senator Leia Organa.  She is nearing the end of her career as a senator, and happily so.  The New Republic has failed on many levels since its birth following the fall of the Empire, and the political gridlock has taken its toll on Organa.  She wishes nothing more than to join her husband in space while also touching base with her son, Ben, currently under Luke Skywalker’s care.  The senate is divided into two factions, which is often the cause of their chronic inaction.  Someone proposes a First Senator, a position that would ensure forward movement.  Leia fears such a title could lead to the next Emperor, and so she has no choice but to accept the nomination when her name is suggested.  Soon her bloodline is questioned, as well as her true motivations.

Up to this point, I very much enjoyed the book especially when it seemed as though I would witness the birth of the First Order, the terrible force plaguing the galaxy in The Force Awakens.   I won’t go into great detail, but the story then takes a turn as Leia goes on several adventures, none of which directly lead to anything significant.  By the end of the book, I’d lost interest because I did not get the enormous payoff I expected.

I think Bloodline differs from Lost Stars mostly because in Lost Stars Gray worked with original characters that encountered milestone events from the original trilogy.  Their story felt as though it could go anywhere and that made the characters all the more engaging.  In Bloodline, it very much seemed as though Gray had been given an edict and could not deviate far from it.  I sensed a certain constraint within the book, and once I realized it suffered from such parameters, I became disheartened.

Though Bloodline offers a glimpse at the beginnings of the First Order, it ultimately serves as nothing more than an adventure for Leia Organa.  I’ve enjoyed the YA Princess Leia book, as well as the Princess Leia graphic novel, but for a writer of Gray’s talent and stature, I expected Bloodline to be far more potent and ultimately meaningful to the Star Wars universe.

 

DC Universe: Rebirth #1 – A Longer Than Intended Reaction

I’ll be honest with you, when I first heard about DC Universe: Rebirth, I didn’t think much of it. I’m 39 and I’ve read DC comics since about the age of 3.  I’ve always loved my Super Friends, but yet another “event” failed to engage my interest this time around.

That is, until DC executed a masterful stroke of marketing – they spoiled the book’s biggest revelation.  Believe it or not, that spoiler is what drew me into the comic book shop today for the first time in over a year.

From this moment on, I will discuss the book as though you’ve read it.  If you’ve (somehow) managed to avoid spoilers and have yet to pick up your copy, turn back now!

Last chance.

Final warning.

I’m serious.

Okay, you’re still here.

Wally West.

Or, as I like to call him, The Flash.

Allow me a brief aside.  As a  7 year old, I felt sure Barry Allen was THE Flash.  When Kid Flash took over the the mantle, I felt cheated.  Yes, even then, my comic book rage was fully developed.  They portrayed Wally as a selfish, immature, horn dog.  But then a funny thing happened.  Wally and I started growing up together.  When I reached high school, Wally realized his full potential under the guidance of Mark Waid.  I watched Wally accept his legacy and role as Barry Allen’s successor.  As I sought to discover my own identity, I cheered as Wally overcame his own doubts and achieved both the respect and friendship of the entire DC Universe.  He became the heart and soul of the JLA, the moral compass of the super hero community, and the guy everyone came to for advice.  I marveled at how a fictional character could go through such growing pains even as I endured similar dilemmas.  He inspired me to make peace with myself, to accept myself, and to realize that I have to believe in myself before I can expect anyone else to do so.

I walked away from comic books in my early 20s, but, of course, Wally reached across the multiverse and invited me back in after only  a few years’ hiatus.  This time he had to learn not just how to love himself but how to love someone else.  I don’t mean just love, I mean truly LOVE.  Geoff Johns gave us a Wally West who gave himself, all of himself, to Linda Park.  Interestingly enough, this story line occurred as I myself got engaged and married.  Just as Wally discovered true love and devotion, real loyalty and humility, I also underwent such change.  Both of us became better men as a result.

My God … I never realized until now just how much I identify with Wally West.  I mean, I knew I did, just not to this extent.  Wow.

Time progressed, and Wally took the final step – fatherhood.  Guess what?  Yep, I’m a dad, too.

Things happened, Bart Allen (aka Impulse/Kid Flash) took over the mantel, Wally returned with Linda and the kids – I loved it.  Here’s my favorite super hero and he’s also a husband and dad!  I literally grew up with this character and enjoyed the same milestones!

When I heard they were bringing Barry back, I felt nervous.  I understood why, I just hoped Wally wouldn’t be tossed aside.  Of course, Geoff Johns did the honors in The Flash: Rebirth, and he gave me exactly what I wanted.  There is a fantastic spread of Wally running alongside Barry, both in a Flash costume, along with the entire Flash Family.  Even Wally’s kids had costumes and were sprinting by their side!  It seemed a new age arrived, one that would be better than ever!  Love, family, legacy – it was all there.

But then Flashpoint arrived.  Long story short, Barry ran back in time, saved his mom, and when he returned to the present, things had changed.  Lois and Clark were no longer married, nor were Barry Allen and Iris West, Green Arrow and Black Canary didn’t even know each other, Wonder Woman was the daughter of Zeus, and Cyborg was a full member of the JLA and had never been in the Teen Titans. In fact, the classic Titans seemed to have not existed at all.  And, there was no trace of Wally West.  No one even mentioned him. A Wally West eventually appeared in The Flash comic, but this was a young African-American man who, while interesting and full of potential, was not the Wally West I’d grown up with.

Of course, this new direction had its ups and downs.  But as years went by, Wally stayed away, and no one really understood why.

Jeeze.  This has been the longest build up ever.  If you’re still reading … thanks for sticking with me.

So the spoiler I mentioned, the one that brought me back into the comic book shop?  My Wally West hugging Barry Allen with Barry saying, “How could I ever forget you?”  Geesh.  I’m tearing up just writing it.  I’m such a sap.

You got me DC; I had to know.  I had to know where Wally had been and what his return had in store for the DC Universe.

This book initiated a change in direction I didn’t even know I wanted, and it’s all thanks to the heart and soul of the DCU – Wally West.

Wally narrates the book.  He’s stuck in the Speed Force.  (This is not the first time he’s been in such a predicament.  I think it’s not even the tenth!  Surely it won’t be the last.)  He’s being held back against his will, but he doesn’t know why or by whom.

Wally needs a tether.  He needs someone to connect with and pull him out of the Speed Force.  He visits several people, all who fail to help him, but those visits set up fascinating plot devices for the future.  He even visits Linda Park, thinking that, like so many times before, she would be his anchor.  It’s a heartbreaking moment, yet not one without hope for days to come.

It’s only fitting that it’s Barry, Wally’s hero, who finally saves him.  Wally appears before Barry, says he’s made peace with dying, tells Barry he loves him, says his goodbyes, and then begins to disintegrate.  Barry, not fully understanding, takes a leap of faith, believes in hope, and reaches for Wally’s hand.  Wally is saved.  And then they remember everything.

Geoff Johns wrote this book, and you can rest assured that his one moment is the mission statement of Rebirth.  It’s incredibly symbolic, perhaps even a metaphor, and it completely won me over.

In the middle of the 1980s, a few books came out that changed the industry.  Interestingly enough, several of them were released by DC Comics.  The Dark Knight Returns was one such book.  The other was Watchmen.  Neither were considered part of “continuity,” but the gritty, adult, psychological approach won fans over and ushered in what some call The Dark Age of comics.  Of course, it devolved over the years into sheer violence without the benefit of intelligent storytelling, then moved into crazy “extreme” versions of characters.   Hal Jordan went nuts and killed the Green Lantern Corps.  Superman suffered death by Doomsday.  Bane broke Batman’s back.  It eventually ran it’s course, and some of these stories were well executed and have withstood the test of time, but several characters were never fully restored to the core of what made them heroes to begin with.

In 2010, after Flashpoint, the DCU wasn’t quite as dark or extreme as it had been, but it seemed to be missing something.  Wally pointed this something out rather poignantly.  What was this “something?”  Love.  Real love.  Family love.  Friend love.  The kind of love that grows over time and bonds people from one generation to the next.  With the New 52, DC abandoned the very thing that made it unique – love, and the legacy that consequently results from it.

In this book we see the pre-New 52 Lois with Clark with their son – love.  We see Ryan Choi working with Ray Palmer – legacy.  We see a meaningful glance between Oliver Queen and Dinah Lance – love.  We see Jaime Reyes side by side with Ted Kord – legacy.  We see Arthur Curry proposing to Mera – love.  We see the other Wally West living up to the name “Kid Flash” – legacy.  We see classic versions of Dr. Fate and Johnny Thunder – legacy.  We see the classic Legion flight ring – legacy.

And just in case Johns hasn’t made it apparent, he kills off Pandora, the driving character of the New 52.  And who kills her?  All indications point to Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen fame.

Mind.

Blown.

Never in a million years did I think DC would go there.

Oh, they went there.

Imagine.  The heart and soul of the DCU has been held prisoner by the harbinger of the Dark Age.  From a story telling perspective, it makes perfect sense.  The DCU is a multiverse, we all understood Watchmen existed in that multiverse somewhere, but I personally never dreamed they would finally integrate members of Watchmen into the mainstream DCU.

Can this renewed direction of love, legacy, and hope start off any better than by having the heroes battle the one character who most perfectly encapsulates the antithesis of those things?  This is a bold step by both Johns and DCU, and I applaud them for taking a pretty big chance.  Watchmen is a seminal work and the author, Alan Moore, has made it explicitly clear he does NOT want his creations mucked with.  Oftentimes publishers purport that a story will “change everything!”  In this case, it’s true.  This has literally never been done.

How fitting that Wally West is leading this charge into a new era.

If You’re Looking For the Heroic Anakin Skywalker

If you’re like me, the film version of Anakin Skywalker never quite lived up to his legendary status referred to in the original Star Wars movies.  He was supposedly a leader of men, a great Jedi, and a cunning warrior.  The three prequel movies failed to give us an opportunity to know the character in that regard as he aged significantly from movie to movie to movie.  Perhaps due to necessity, the three prequels rushed his entire story from boyhood to fallen hero, and most of us couldn’t connect enough with him at an emotional level to care.

However, that’s not to say the version of Anakin Skywalker we need does not exist.  Look no further than the entire cartoon series entitled The Clone Wars.   This series ran from 2008 to 2015 for a total of six seasons.  Not only does it allow you to understand the full scope of the epic Clone Wars, but it also dives deeply into Anakin’s journey.  Time after time, Anakin saves the day through cleverness, bravery, recklessness, and yes, sometimes even anger.  This is a charismatic, lovable Anakin that we truly believe could inspire legends.  It’s funny, because I just completed the entire series and it has retroactively made me think higher of the prequels!  I’m pretty sure that’s now how it’s supposed to work!

Part of what allows us to identify and adore Anakin is his relationship to Obi-Wan Kenobi.  No longer does it feel as though Obi-Wan is putting up with a spoiled child.  In The Clone Wars cartoon series, these two men are partners — even brothers.

Also, we get to know several of the actual Clone Troopers and bond with them in a way that the movies never even attempted.  Their turn is all the more tragic because in the carton series, they are the epitome of loyalty, courageousness, and respect.  Again, the cartoon has made me change my mind about the quality of the prequels, even thought the prequels came before the cartoon!  Anakin’s endearing relationship to these troopers is also part of his appeal.  He loves his soldiers, and they love him in return.  Both would sacrifice in an instant for the other. and often do.

Finally, perhaps the greatest boon to Anakin’s character is the instantly likable Ahsoka Tano.  Ahsoka is Anakin’s Padawan.  Yes, there is a reason she is not mentioned in any of the movies, and yes, they do a wonderful job addressing it.  Trust me when I tell you by the end of the series she will be one of your favorite Star Wars characters.  Her story and Anakin’s story are obviously intertwined, and what happens to them plays a tremendous role in Anakin’s downfall.  We don’t realize in Revenge of the Sith how much Anakin hurts, we don’t realize how much disillusionment he has with the Jedi Order, nor do we realize how angry he is.  Ahsoka’s fate is instrumental to all three of these details.

This cartoon features an Anakin who is commanding, caring, funny, bold, and smart.  This is an Anakin you believe may be the greatest of the Jedi.  It’s an Anakin who makes you feel inspired.  It’s an Anakin that is all the more tragic, for you know he will fall, yet you hope somehow he will avoid an inescapable fate.

Thanks to this cartoon, I no longer think of Anakin Skywalker as a wooden, whiny character.  It delivered the Anakin Skywalker of legend.

To Honor Darwyn Cooke

Cancer steals those we love on an alarmingly regular basis.  Some of those victims we love because they are friends or family; others we love because we admire their artistic ingenuity.

Reports are breaking that we lost one such artist this morning – Darwyn Cooke.  He was only 53.

If you’re unfamiliar with Darwyn Cooke, he was a luminary amidst the very best in the comic book industry.  They say simplicity is genius, and Cooke exemplified such philosophy.  A master of sequential art, Cooke’s drawings are clean, simple, fluid, and dynamic.  Cooke utilized a style that some would define as “retro,” yet he also incorporated a modern flare that made each and every one of his works both unique and inspired.

Those drawing methods that earned him fans throughout the medium also proved useful in his writing.  Cooke kept his stories direct, on point, and fun.  He knew what made the characters great, and he knew how to amplify those characteristics to make them feel simultaneously familiar and fresh.

In fact, I believe Cooke endeared himself to so many because he was an excellent caretaker of the characters we love.  His Superman is THE Superman.  His Wonder Woman is THE Wonder Woman.  His Batman is THE Batman.  These icons will likely outlive us all, and for many, they are constants throughout life.  They must be treated with respect, but they also must be reinvigorated through the efforts of special talent.  Cooke managed to hold true to what time cannot erase in regards to these characters while stamping them with his own individual interpretation.  As fans, we recognized that Cooke could be trusted with these heroes we hold so dear – that they would indeed flourish through his pen and paper.

It is my sincerest hope that this writing will motivate you to go read something by Darwyn Cooke.  I think the greatest honor we can offer is to experience and acknowledge his craft.  You can find a comprehensive list of his available work HERE.  Of course, as will so many others, I recommend you procure DC: The New Frontier.  I believe it to be his masterpiece.

Darwyn Cooke shall be missed.

Star Wars: Vader Down – A Book Review

This is probably the coolest Darth Vader story I’ve ever experienced, and that’s no small statement.

The first crossover between Marvel’s Darth Vader and Star Wars comic book series, Vader Down collects the entire tale as Darth Vader crash lands on the Rebel Alliance’s new planetary base.  He hunts Luke Skywalker, the boy who humiliated Vader by destroying the Death Star.  However, though he’s told no one, Vader has learned that the rebel hero is also his son.  How exactly did Vader crash land on this planet?  I won’t spoil it for you, but it involves Luke Skywalker, and it is totally in keeping with the Skywalker tradition of adventurism.

What makes this graphic novel so utterly cool is that Darth Vader literally fights an entire battalion of rebel soldiers on his own.  He is surrounded by dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of enemy combatants and he doesn’t even flinch.  This is the Darth Vader you’ve always wanted to see, trust me.  I’ve never felt so good about rooting for the bad guy!

And while this prolonged conflict is worth the price of the book alone, there is much more going on in it besides Vader’s impossible fight.  Luke must battle a murderous protocol droid as well as his astromech partner who is somehow even more bloodthirsty.  Both are in service to Vader, by the way.  The two droids are accompanied by Dr. Aphra, a standout character new to the mythos and also dedicated to Vader’s cause.  She tussles with Han Solo, and you’ll love the steps they take to try to defeat each other.  Finally, Princess Leia ultimately faces down Vader herself; neither realize the implications of their confrontation.

This book is nonstop action with great sequences that will delight any Star Wars fan.  Though it features different artists due to the nature of the crossover, the pencils, inks, and colors are beautiful to behold.  Both writers capture that distinct Star Wars humor, deliver an epic story, and keep each and every character true to their roots.

I have thoroughly enjoyed both the Star Wars and Darth Vader comic book series, and this crossover between the two should be considered an instant classic.

Captain America: Civil War – A Movie Review

(Spoiler-free)

When it comes to Marvel movies, I am pretty good at remaining objective.  DC movies …  not so much – I’m a fanboy.  I can honestly tell you that if you’re a fan of the super hero genre, it just doesn’t get much better than Captain America: Civil War.  This movie absolutely satisfied on every level.

As you probably know, the premise of the film hinges on the fact that the United Nations wants to oversee the Avengers due to the consequential collateral damage that ensues after their actions.  Tony Stark, due to the series of mistakes he’s made over the last eight years, thinks it’s a good idea.  Steve Rogers, after the Hydra fiasco, only trusts those in his inner circle.  Thus, factions arise.  And when the Winter Soldier, Rogers’ childhood friend, seems responsible for more carnage, those factions go to war.

I won’t go into greater detail than that for fear of spoiling the plot, but rest assured the movie is far more complex than the above synopsis.  There are deeply motivated characters in this film, and each believes their actions are justified.  I think this movie succeeds primarily because there has been a lot of groundwork and characterization developed over the years with these men and women – their conflict feels intensely personal and legitimate as a result.

Furthermore, their conflict is handled with both grace and dynamism.  Everything you want to happen when they fight happens – it is a delight.  And while the movie is deathly serious at times, and while there are real consequences to the level of power displayed, the film, like Shakespeare, knew when it was time to lighten things up.  The one-liners in the movie are hilarious, and certain characters provide the levity needed to keep things fun.  (I’m sure you can guess who those characters are.)

What I also loved about the movie is that every character got a moment to shine.  It’s amazing they were able to cram so much in so deftly.  I know this movie is called Captain America, but this also truly Iron Man 3.5, Avengers 2.5, and Spider-Man 0.5.  They left so much for future movies to explore – I can’t wait!

The amazing action, the emotional turmoil, the “wow” moments, the hints at the future, and the fantastic humor made Captain America: Civil War a joy on every level.