The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew – A Book Review

The Shadow Hero is an interesting graphic novel for several reasons.  The first is that it takes an obscure hero from the Golden Age of comic books—the Green Turtle—and gives him an origin for the first time in seventy years.  It’s also interesting because it’s largely believed that the Green Turtle is the first Asian American superhero.  Finally, it’s because Gene Luen Yang also wrote American Born Chinese, a graphic novel both incredibly funny, amazingly imaginative, and distinctively insightful.

The Shadow Hero is a fine read.  It introduces a fascinating concept in a set of spirit animals that represent China’s prosperity.  They must live in the shadow of a human, and, as you can probably guess, one of them is a tortoise.  Through a series of events, the tortoise spirit makes its way to America and ends up with nineteen-year-old Hank, the son of a grocer in Chinatown.  Hank is at first a reluctant hero, encouraged by his eccentric mother, but events unfold that lead Hank to take on the Green Turtle persona both willingly and passionately.  Though the book mixes action with comedy, the finale delivers a dangerous scenario for both our hero and the tortoise spirit.

Sonny Liew’s art and colors are engaging and progress the story well.  He’s got a great grasp on the era, and his dynamic figures blend realism with impossible physicality.  I was not previously familiar with Liew, but he impressed me very much and I look forward to learning more about him.

I’m a Gene Luen Yang fan, and I wanted to love this book, but I didn’t.  I like it very much.  It’s quite a serviceable graphic novel, but aside from the unique history of the Green Turtle, it’s pretty standard fare.

Perhaps this is unfair to Gene Luen Yang, but American Born Chinese surprised and delighted at every turn, and left me truly feeling as though the book perpetuated a change within my worldview.  The Shadow Hero is a nice super hero story, but, in the end, doesn’t transcend the genre.

Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come (Part I) – A Graphic Novel Review

I’ve always enjoyed JSA, mostly because Geoff Johns has made a point to keep one foot in the past with the title while keeping the other foot firmly planted in the future.

With the Justice Society of America re-launch, the team has a new mission statement of making sure the world has better heroes, and so they are first tracking down legacy heroes and training them to deserve the mantle they’ve assumed.

Thy Kingdom Come is particularly fascinating because it reintroduces Superman from Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come series.  In expert juxtaposition, Johns makes a point that while the Earth-2 Superman thought Earth-1’s heroes weren’t heroic enough, the Kingdom Come Superman finds Earth-1’s (New Earth’s) heroes inspiring and invigorating.  Any writer will tell you that good writing means making use of unusual perspectives, and Johns does just this with KC Superman.

Furthermore, I love the KC Superman because he has an edge to him.  He’s damaged goods.  After all, he watched his world’s heroes demean and destroy themselves and did nothing until the (relatively) very end.  He wants a fresh start as well, a chance at redemption, and that makes him very compelling.

But among such heavy themes and dangerous adventures, Johns also brings about quite a bit of joyfulness.  Boxing matches between Wildcat and his son, fundraising at the local firehouse, and ski trips are just part of what makes this team such a delight to follow. 

Johns also mixes established, semi-established, and brand new characters in this book and gives each a chance to shine in an appealing and engaging manner.  To have characters over half-a-century old such as Flash and Green Lantern interacting with brand new legacy characters such as Wildcat II, Cyclone, and Citizen Steel brings an unpredictability that is missing in several other DC titles.  Throw in semi-established characters using familiar names like Hourman, Liberty Belle, and Starman, and you’ve got something exciting, amusing, and captivating.

For me, Justice Society of America continues to be a must-read and I really look forward to where the title is heading with its heavy referencing to Kingdom Come and multiple-subplots.

Justice League of America, Volume I: The Tornado’s Path – A Graphic Novel Review

Let’s just get this straight: I love the Justice League of America. I always have, and I always will. I loved the Detroit stories, I loved the “Bwah-ha-ha” era, I loved when Jurgens tried to get it more serious, and I loved it when Nuklon and Obsidian joined the team. When Morrison came along, I thought the comic book gods had smiled upon us, and when Waid took over from Morrison, I thought all was still right in the world. When Joe Kelly came along I was thoroughly impressed, and then, after he left, well, things got a little rough for a while. However, who comes in to save the day but the otherworldly Geoff Johns. And then, well, it got rough again.

However, when I heard Brad Meltzer had been tapped to reboot the title, I was more than ecstatic. Meltzer earned my undying loyalty with Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest, and Identity Crisis was very strong as well. I realized from those two works that Meltzer’s strengths are definitely characterization and the interpersonal relationships between characters.

So, when I gave in once again to my weak will and read the message boards as to what people thought of his work (because I’m a wait for the trade kinda guy) on JLofA, I was disappointed that they were largely saying negative things (I know, the message boards being negative, big surprise). This concerned me, because I couldn’t believe Meltzer was doing a poor job.

Fact is, he didn’t do a poor job at all.

The Tornado’s Path works in almost all aspects. Meltzer is harkening back to my favorite era of the league, before the Detroit era, and that’s when they were one big happy family hanging out and acting like the greatest super hero team in the world. But, he puts his own twist on it. Instead of the team coming together and then breaking off into splinter groups to deal with problems, like in the old days, the series begins with them teaming up into small groups and then coming together to form a larger whole.

There were some complaints that this slowed the action down, but this baby had plenty of action from the get-go. Sure, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman spend half the book simply talking with each other, but the rest of the team is out there in splinter groups getting things done. This allows Meltzer to establish the rest of the team and help the reader get a feel for them. It’s not like anyone doesn’t already know what the Big Three are about, right?

I also heard a bit of rumbling because Meltzer has all of his JLofA members calling each other by first name. This didn’t bother me at all. I mean, these people are friends, that’s what’s Meltzer is trying to establish. If you were friends with a police officer, would you always call him Officer Smith? Probably not. The code-names are there to protect their identities, but if the team already knows their identities, why would they continue to use code-names when in private?

The Tornado’s Path is basically a storyline to reestablish the Justice League of America and to bring Red Tornado back into the forefront of the DCU. I’ve always thought Reddy was cool, but after Zero Hour, things got a little weird for him for a long time. Thank God Johns finally brought back the very-human Reddy, and Meltzer took that even one step further. Are there some plot holes in The Tornado’s Path? You bet, but nothing that impedes the sheer exuberance of seeing the JLofA done right. We’ve got lots of heroes, we’ve got lots of villains, we’ve got lots of characterization, we’ve got some mystery and humor to go along with the action–this one’s got it all.

And finally, I’d like to talk about two things: One–I am one hundred percent in favor of Meltzer’s lineup. The Big Three is an obvious choice that I’m glad they made. Hal Jordan makes a lot of sense as he’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal in the DCU. Black Canary is also a logical choice because of her status in the DCU among characters, and it’s high time she became editorially more important. Hawkgirl makes sense because she fills in for Hawkman as Red Arrow fills in for Green Arrow, thus keeping the Hawk vs. Arrow classic feud in an all-new and interesting way. Red Tornado HAS to be on the JLofA and I’m glad somebody finally realized that fact. Vixen is a cool character with a lot of room for growth, so she’s a good choice for giving the writer some breathing room. Black Lightning has long been one of my favorite characters, and it’s time he FINALLY is getting some respect. I prefer his red and blue costume, but I can deal with the shaved head and bodysuit. And finally, Meltzer is the only one who’s ever made me care about Roy Harper in the least. I’m excited to see where this character, who has been around since 1941, goes in the JLofA.

Two–In my opinion, you have to read the collected editions of Meltzer’s work for it to truly shine. He is a novelist, remember, so his pacing is geared towards intro, climax, and conclusion with lots of characterization in between. I loved The Archer’s Quest, which I first read in collected edition, but Identity Crisis wasn’t as good for me, and I read that in the single monthly installments. Trust me, those who said The Tornado’s Path was too slow may have a leg to stand on if they were reading the monthly issues, but if you read the collected edition, you will be amazed at what a page-turner it really is.

The Justice League of America is in very good hands, indeed.

Daredevil: The Devil, Inside and Out, Volume 2 – A Graphic Novel Review

I’m a tremendous fan of Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil, so when the news arrived that he was leaving the title, I found myself distraught. Before Bendis’ run, I’d never really cared much for the character. And though many criticized the level of deconstruction he brought to the line, I always found his work riveting and more than entertaining.

That being said, Bendis left Daredevil in enough of a predicament that I wanted to see how this fella–Ed Brubaker–tied up Bendis’ loose ends. Brubaker’s The Devil, Inside and Out Vol 1 impressed me, but Vol. 2 left me in awe.

Brubaker has somehow, somehow, tied up the many dangling plots left behind by Bendis (I believe they agreed upon this, by the way; Bendis wasn’t leaving a mess for someone else to clean up) in a way that was both satisfying and quite cleansing. New plot possibilities have organically arisen from the old, and while everything isn’t exactly back to normal for Matt Murdock (is it ever?), I do feel as though Brubaker has set the stage to move on with his own agenda for the character and has successfully exorcised the benign ghost of Bendis.

So, in summation, I would like to recommend the entire current run of Daredevil. Kevin Smith got us off on the right foot, Bendis brought consistent quality and depth to a character I had never before respected, and Brubaker seems to keep all of the best aspects of what Bendis did, but has now brought his own brand of action and noir, further enriching an already rich hero.

52: Volume I – A Graphic Novel Review

I’ll admit it, I read every spoiler of this series on a weekly basis. I know how it ends, but even that did not diminish the sheer pleasure I derived in reading 52: Volume I. Reading the collected edition of this series cannot possibly mimic the experience of reading it on a weekly basis, but let me just say that the work most definitely holds up as a collected volume. It progresses smoothly with little to no breaks in consistency, and considering that the men writing it were working as a team and cranking this monster out for an entire year, AND never missed a deadline, well, that just makes me appreciate the work even more.

Make no mistake: Volume I is mostly setting up things to come. Even so, I am fascinated with the characters they’re focusing on. They’ve chosen to spotlight characters that are not in the upper echelon of the DC pantheon because, after all, 52 is supposed to take place during a year without Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. I love them using lesser-known characters because the reader realizes anything goes, which obviously lifts the level of suspense. But even by the end of Volume I, these lower-tier characters had already won me over.

I also need to tell you that while the writing is rock solid, the art changes from issue to issue (as you can surely understand). I found the art more than adequate, but for some people it may be distracting.

I truly believe you have to put yourself in the shoes of the creators with this work and keep an open mind on some of the production issues that they had no control over. They pulled off an amazing feat, and best of all, the quality is superb!

All-Star Superman: Volume I – A Graphic Novel Review

I’ve never had much interest in Superman. I’ve gone on record in several instances claiming that while he has the potential to be a wonderfully well-rounded character, too many of his handlers in the past have opted to make him nothing more than a super-man battling giant monkeys and avoiding fragments of rock.

Morrison does not make this mistake. Morrison addresses all those psychological aspects that make Superman super, none of which have anything to do with the ability to leap a tall building in a single bound.

However, Morrison also brings us those undeniably fun qualities of Superman that existed in the Silver Age and mixes them with a 2007 mentality, giving us a hybrid of quirkiness and depth that only a mad scientist like Morrison could achieve. His Lex Luthor, for example, is a combination of everything in the past that has worked well for the character, but he still manages to give us something fresh.

In other words, he’s giving us the best of two worlds (pun totally intended) with the Superman mythos. Furthermore, I love this collection because each issue basically can stand alone, yet they also blend together to form a unified whole as well.

Let’s talk about the art! Quitely is simply an artist in the truest sense of the word. Every single panel is a joy to behold. I love the way he took Superman’s costume and really made it otherworldly with the slightest of adjustments. By shortening the cape and elongated the trunks just a bit, I no longer see a big man wearing his underwear on the outside. It looks like some sort of space-man outfit, which, remember, is exactly what Superman is–a space man. Oh, and by the way, I don’t mean to sound weird or whatever, but Quitely draws the cutest Lois Lane I’ve ever seen. He manages to convey her strength and self-reliance while still making her attractive. For some reason in the past, artists have had trouble blending the two.

If you’re a die-hard Superman fan, you’ll love this collection. If you’re like me and you were more engrossed with the creative team than the character, you’ll still love it. And if you don’t even like comic books, you’ll still love this one. This is truly the super work of some all stars.

The Flash: Lightning In a Bottle – A Graphic Novel Review

Yeah … so … um, I swear I’ve been meaning to write a review of this collection for about a month now, and just when I sat down yesterday to write it, well, we got some news about Bart Allen and The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive Issue #13. I promise you, the recent news did not alter my thoughts on this work whatsoever.

When this new series began, I honestly didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why they ended one of my all-time favorite runs with Geoff Johns’ Wally West as the Flash. What initially put Wally on the path to greatness, after a bit of a rocky start, was Mark Waid’s fun and fanciful writing, and Johns just kept that sprint moving.
So, even though I didn’t understand why they were relieving Wally of his duties, I also didn’t get very upset about it. After all, Wally was once Kid Flash, and he had to step into Barry Allen’s boots, and, though it took many years, he eventually became a top-tier character in terms of roundedness and dynamic. I didn’t see the point in tossing Wally aside, but I also had faith that Bart would come into his own one day. I love the character of the Flash, no matter who’s in the mask, so I was going to stick with it.

Oh, but the fanboys cried havoc! I kept hearing the news series was terrible; Bilson and Demeo, the new writers, didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Blah, blah, blah. As is my habit, I waited for the trade.

Guess what folks? It’s not bad.

Granted, it’s not up to the level of Geoff Johns’ or Mark Waid’s run, but those guys are seasoned all-stars. I thought it was a nice intro to a new series with some interesting plot points, art ranging from the very good to the serviceable, and while Bart wasn’t as fun as he use to be as Impulse, or, to a lesser degree, Kid Flash, he also seemed to bring an interesting perspective to the character that I felt would be interesting to follow.

Did I like Bart as much as Wally? No, but once upon a time I didn’t like Wally as much as Barry, and that changed in the early nineties when I was in high school. Bart had been around for a long time, I felt fairly confident he would come into his own and the writers would get into a groove with who they wanted him to be and where they wanted to take him.

Well, if you’ve heard the news, it’s all a moot point. I don’t want to give anything away, but the second volume of this series will be the last. I’m looking forward to reading it, and, with the news of Mark Waid returning to a Flash book picking up where the other series left off, I’m fairly stoked to read those, too.

But, don’t let the disgruntled readers fool you. Lightning In a Bottle is not bad and, if you’re a Flash fan, despite who’s wearing the uniform, I think you’ll enjoy it.