Monday, 5 October 2015
Published by Titan Books
If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, there is no such thing as enough information about the world of Harry Potter. This book is made with love and care for fans of JK Rowling’s creation, and it is a treasure trove of beautiful photographs, concept art and lovely details from behind the scenes that infuse appreciation for the amount of hard work that went into the making of the films. You need to have this handsome book on your shelves if you are into Harry Potter (which includes me, as can be evidenced by the Harry Potter tag on this blog).
The book is separated into nine chapters to cover all the major characters in the films: Hogwarts students (not all of them, obviously); Hogwarts staff; student robes/sportswear; the Triwizard Tournament; celebrations (Yule Ball/Slughorn’s Christmas party); the Order of the Phoenix; Dark Forces; Ministry of Magic; and families. This provides a handy method of splitting up the characters into themed collections, but also acts as a more enjoyable way to consume the book in one sitting (something which I did because I couldn’t stop reading it).
Each character gets roughly the same approach to what is provided (although the more prominent a character, the more information and pictures are needed): an inset photo of the actor in character; a full-length publicity shot of the actor in character (to get the full effect of the costume); character sketches of costume ideas; concept drawings before casting (these are provided by several artists; my favourite was Rob Bliss, especially his early concept art for Shacklebolt); behind-the-scenes photography (such as a photo with Ralph Fiennes before special effects removed his nose and altered the skin on his head); and perhaps a photo (and accompanying text) of the character’s wand.
The accompanying text essays the approach to the various characters, through conversations with the production designers and their approach to the costume in relation to the character, and conversations with the actors and how they approached the character in relation to the costume. This is particularly fascinating because not only does it demonstrate how much thought and work went into what, on the surface, seems like a simple process (clothes are clothes, right?) but also how the nature of the character reflects on the costume and how the clothes provide the actors with a way to play the character in addition to what is in the screenplay and the books. The sheer number of costumes, even for one character, and the amount of work that can go into a single costume worn for a single scene (such as the eight weeks to embellish Dumbledore’s robes with embroidered Celtic symbols) are staggering and this book shows that the people involved should get a lot more respect.
These sections of text provided lots of fascinating nuggets about the film and the actors involved: Daniel Radcliffe tried green contact lenses to hide his blue eyes (to be true to the books) but his eyes reacted so badly he couldn’t wear them and it was decided that the cinematic Harry Potter would have blue eyes; Matthew Lewis wore a fat suit for the part of Neville Longbottom in the early films; nobody told the Phelps twins which of the Weasley twins they were supposed to be playing when they sent them the scripts; Tom Felton wore a wig for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire because he was tired of dying his hair blond but realised it looked better and returned to dying it for the rest of the series; Emma Thompson illustrated her thoughts of how Trelawney should look and the production designer agreed with her ideas; the reason why Professor Flitwick changed appearance between films; the mechanics behind Moody’s prosthetic eye; Imelda Staunton asked that she be given a big bottom to play Delores Umbridge, so she was given padding that helped her develop the distinctive walk; Jason Isaacs changed the look of Lucius Malfoy from the pin-stripe suit and dark hair to the blond, ostentatious, walking-cane look that sums up the character so perfectly.
The main aspect of this book is the wealth of visual detail from the films in the book: costume continuity photos and reports, lush visual development artwork and concept art of scenes and characters before the filming, the gorgeous publicity photographs of the actors in costume, illustrations of the costumes based on the production designs, close-up photographs of the material used for costumes (displaying the details, such as the buttons at the bottom of Snapes’ trousers, involved in the clothing), even the photographs of the wands – all these details provide an extra richness to the film as well as insider knowledge that enhances your enjoyment of the films. If you’ve been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour, you will have seen all the production design in real life, but it’s lovely to have a permanent record of these beautiful visuals easy to hand whenever you want.
I hope it comes across that I really loved this book – it is a great piece of Harry Potter memorabilia and a handsome addition to the Harry Potter tomes. If I have one minor gripe is that the book is in American English, which means that it constantly refers to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone instead of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in addition to American English spellings (which leads to a typo of ‘actualy’ instead of ‘actually’, as if somebody thought that there shouldn’t be any words with a ‘-lly’ spelling); it also refers to the film Goodbye, Mr. Chips as ‘Good-bye, Mr. Chips’. However, this doesn’t detract from the finished product – Harry Potter: The Character Vault is a great collection of over 200 pages (plus an insert with death masks, and two posters) of glorious Harry Potter visuals and information.
Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
Friday, 18 September 2015
Ostrander studied theology and was an actor, but started writing comic books in 1983, co-creating Grimjack for First Comics with Timothy Truman. (I have to confess: I’ve never read any Grimjack, despite being an Ostrander fan.) He would start working at DC in 1986, plotting the Legend mini-series and writing Fury of Firestorm. But it would be the series he started writing in 1987 that would put Ostrander on the map and leave his mark on comic book history – Suicide Squad was a reboot of a short-lived title from The Brave and The Bold from 1959, but this new series was something else, and is the reason why there will be a Suicide Squad film next year.
Ostrander was still writing Grimjack during this time, but the success of Suicide Squad meant he was kept busy at DC, writing Hawkworld and Firestorm, as well as launching an ongoing series for the Spectre (with frequent collaborator, Tom Mandrake, on art), and also doing some work at Valiant on various titles. In 1995, he would start writing comic books for Marvel as well, including titles such as Punisher and X-Man, and launching a Heroes For Hire title. He wrote the Kents maxi-series for DC that would lead to him to be a go-to guy for Westerns for a while, writing Apache Skies and Blaze of Glory for Marvel. At DC, he would launch an ongoing series for Martian Manhunter, the first for long-standing member of the Justice League. In 2000, he would start writing Star Wars comic books for Dark Horse, which he would continue to do for over a decade (another confession: I have never read any of Ostrander’s Star Wars comic books). He continues to write a variety of comic books (including a Suicide Squad mini-series), as well as a regular column at Comic Mix and you can follow him on Twitter. He and Mandrake will be publishing Kros: Hallowed Ground, after a successful Kickstarter that has just completed financing. So, now my top five comics as written by Ostrander (NB: it should be pointed out that between technically Ostrander didn’t write all of these comic books alone: from the mid-1980s to 1997, he co-wrote many with his wife, Kim Yale, who tragically died from cancer):
5. Heroes For Hire
With early art by Pasqual Ferry, Heroes For Hire was a comic book that was fun and light (perhaps not an obvious aspect of Ostrander’s gritty work on Suicide Squad or thoughtful work on The Spectre), and it used a variety of Marvel characters in a series that unfortunately lasted only 19 issues. The new team comprised Luke Cage, Danny Rand, the Hulk, Scott Lang, Black Knight and White Tiger, with appearances from Brother Voodoo, She-Hulk and Shang-Chi; it was filling a hole in the Marvel universe created by the Heroes Reborn nonsense, and was an enjoyable use of Marvel characters – Ostrander had a good handle on them – and it was a shame that it was cancelled.
4. Martian Manhunter
It’s surprising to think that although the Martian Manhunter had been around for so long in the DC universe, there hadn’t been an ongoing series for the character. Ostrander (with Mandrake on art duties) added a lot to the character because nobody else had the opportunity before (apart from Oreo cookies), including a lot of Martian history and the fact that the Martian Manhunter was a famous superhero in the southern hemisphere, using different identities. It was a thoughtful series for a thoughtful character, and it was another shame that it was cancelled due to low sales after three years.
3. The Spectre
Ostrander used his theological training to imbue this ongoing series, placing the Spectre in morally ambiguous and ethically challenging situations, adding layers to the character and the history of the Avenging Wrath of the Murdered Dead. Mandrake’s dark and moody art was the perfect accompaniment, even more than when he was drawing Martian Manhunter, and the series lasted for over five years of interesting stories in a shady corner of the DC universe.
This is perhaps a bit of cheat, because this four-issue mini-series for the breakout character of Suicide Squad should be considered part of Suicide Squad series, but this is my blog post so I can bend the rules if I want. Floyd Lawton had been created as a Batman villain, but Ostrander (with his wife, Kim Yale) turned Deadshot into an extremely intriguing and multifaceted character, with a tragic history and complex reasons for the decisions he makes. Much in the same way that James Robinson turned the old villain, The Shade, into such an interesting character that he deserved his own series, Ostrander and Yale turned Deadshot into a character worthy of a mini-series while being a star of a team book.
1. Suicide Squad
I discovered Suicide Squad after the fact, due to the internet (which is appropriate, as an inadvertent typo of Suicide Squad would lead to the name of the rec.arts.comics awards, called the Squiddies) and the recommendations on the rec.arts.comics boards. I remember picking up the series in the back issue bins of the comic book shop I frequented at the time (as talked about in this post) for 25p each, which seems like a bargain now. It was a worthy recommendation because the Squad was unlike anything else in the mainstream DC universe: supervillains used in covert operations under duress, characters actually dying (not comic-book dying) during the series, great characterisation of minor figures, and the powerhouse character that was Amanda ‘The Wall’ Waller. Smart, dynamic, political, gritty, emotional, funny (such as the issue where Ostrander used The Writer in the Squad, who was basically Grant Morrison when he put himself into Animal Man at the end of his run, with a laptop to rewrite the action as it went along) and deserving of all the good things that have been said and written about it. Some creators are inextricably linked to a series or character (Walt Simonson and Thor, Frank Miller and Daredevil, Chris Claremont and the X-Men); Ostrander is inextricably linked to the Suicide Squad and for that he deserves respect.
Monday, 14 September 2015
Art by Alan Davis
(instalments from 2000 AD progs 287–307)
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the art of Alan Davis on this blog, so this book is an interesting collection of his early art, from back in 1982–1983. There is a particularly fascinating introduction by Davis himself, explaining it all: meeting 2000 AD editor Richard Burton in 1982, while Davis still had a regular day job in a factory and a small amount of experience on Captain Britain and Marvelman, so this was an opportunity for Davis to go full time. However, the job wasn’t one of the big strips, but as the role of back-up artist on new strip, Harry 20 On The High Rock. All 21 episodes had already been written (Finley-Day had written full script but it had been reworked by somebody else), so Davis was assigned to draw episodes 3 and 4 but without seeing the finished art for episodes 1 and 2. Davis then talks about the problem with the design of the space prison and the problems with issues of the vacuum of space and trying to escape. However, it turned out that the original artist hadn’t done the first two episodes – delayed due to another job – so Davis had to do the first two episodes urgently with a launch date for the title that couldn’t be changed. He turned it around in a week and was then offered the job of the whole series because the original artist dropped out; Davis said yes, even though his regular commitment to Captain Britain and Marvelman meant he would have to draw 40 pages a month for 5 months. He didn’t know how insane a prospect that was, with only 18 months of part-time experience, so he readily admits that it was hard work and a steep learning curve.
It’s apparent that the artwork is early Davis and that is has been rushed in places – it’s not as polished and competent as what we think of as Davis’s style – but the basics are still evident at this point. His natural gift for storytelling is apparent, all his characters looks individual and easily recognisable, the action is dynamic and well choreographed, the camera angles and point of view in dialogue scenes keep the panels flowing without loss of clarity, and there is a strong sense of the cramped quality of a packed space prison. It’s the artwork of a talented artist in the early phase of his career.
I suppose I should mention something of the story: it’s 2060; 100 miles above earth, the High Rock is the top-security satellite prison, packed to capacity with 10,000 vicious criminals, to which Harry Thompson is sentenced to 20 years for supplying food to the people of the Equatorial Zone (this isn’t a crime but his punishment is to make a point). The High Rock is ran by Warden Worldwise, an eyepatch-wearing villain of a character, and controlled by his vicious guards; it is a hard and brutal, with Harry vowing to escape, helped by his cell mates (Genghis Eighteen and Ben Ninety – the surname refers to the length of their sentence), while trying to avoid the violent guards and the hardened criminals, with some extra twists thrown in for good measure. It’s a classic 2000 AD concept: take a staple genre (the prison-escape film) and add a sci-fi twist. It’s well done, but for me it’s the art that stands out – seeing Davis on a non-superhero title, adding some grit to his style.
Wednesday, 2 September 2015
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by David Finch
My reading of collected editions written by Geoff Johns continues. This one was of interest because it was the first company-wide crossover event of the DC New 52, running during the end of 2013 and the first half of 2014, so there was an almost historical aspect to the book. There is nothing new or different in the approach to the crossover, but a new universe to play with allows for different opportunities.
The story starts with Lex Luthor threatening Thomas Kord in a helicopter, because Luthor is an evil businessman and Johns has to show this. While Luthor is doing this, the electricity goes out over Metropolis and all screens that have power bear the message, ‘This world is ours’. At the same time, while outside Arkham Asylum, Nightwing is taken down and captured by a group of characters. An almost identical-looking Superman breaks into Luthor Towers, steals the kryptonite hidden within, and snorts it like a drug – the Crime Syndicate, the evil version of the Justice League from Earth 3, has taken Earth.
Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Power Ring, Deathstorm, Johnny Quick, Atomica – in a live relay to the whole world, they claim to have killed the Justice League, taken the Watchtower and called together all the supervillains to pledge allegiance to this new world order. They reveal Nightwing as Richard Grayson, telling the assembled villains that they know the names and locations of his associates, and that they will destroy them. Then Ultraman moves the moon in front of the sun to stop the sting of ultraviolet sunlight. Grid (the Crime Syndicate version of Vic Stone) controls computers and their version of Alfred looks after a prisoner from their dimension.
Luthor realises that this is a job for Superman, so brings out his own version: subject B-Zero, a clone from a single cell of Kryptonian blood (who quickly acquires the name of Bizarro). He also dons a protective armour suit he’s had built using 38 companies he bought specifically for that reason. Meanwhile, in STAR Labs, Batman and Catwoman break in – they need the help of Dr Stone to fix this Earth’s Vic Stone; we discover that Superman has a sliver of kryptonite in his brain, incapacitating him, and Deathstorm has opened up Firestorm’s matrix, which pulled all the other heroes inside it; they are gone.
Over at the villain gathering, things don’t go smoothly: Ultraman crushes Black Adam’s mouth so he can’t say his magic word, and the Rogues refuse to join the Crime Syndicate, barely escaping with their lives but ending up stuck in a mirror, with the exception of a depowered Captain Cold. Black Manta retrieves Black Adam from the sea where Ultraman left him – and all these people by sheer bloody luck happen to meet CONVENIENTLY at the same time with Luthor and B-Zero; what are the chances of that happening? (As my dad would say, when we would watch films as a family and complain about the ludicrous narrative conveniences that occurred, the reason it happened is because the plot said so, now shut up and watch the film.) This band of (bad) brothers go to Wayne Enterprises but Batman is there, closely followed by Power Ring; Batman puts on a yellow power ring he happens to have, but it doesn’t work well for him, but then Sinestro appears out of nowhere, takes the yellow ring and kills Power Ring. We now have the team that will fight back against the Crime Syndicate: Luthor, Bizarro, Black Adam, Black Manta, Captain Cold, Sinestro, Deathstroke (who was there to kill them but is offered a better deal by Luthor) plus Batman and Catwoman.
This story is ‘Luthor as hero wins out due to his being smarter’, which is an unusual premise to take (if symbolically connected to the old DC universe, where the Earth 3 Luthor was the only hero on that world), but it treads a fine line with being an unpleasant read because he is still a nasty, evil individual who takes advantage of people and kills them if necessary. I understand the inherent drama in putting a villainous character into a heroic role, but it doesn’t make it enjoyable if you don’t like Luthor. I’ve never liked the Luthor character, so it meant that I was reading a book with a protagonist I don’t want to read about, and it’s not as if he has a redemptive arc (the most we get is him being slightly less corporate towards Thomas Kord’s son, a certain Ted Kord …) – Luthor is still a disagreeable and obnoxious human being at the end, who wins the day, gains secret information and gets to be excessively smug because he saves Superman’s life. The New 52 universe is certainly not the old DC universe, and although I enjoyed some aspects of this book, I’m glad I don’t read many DC books now.
The other aspect to discuss in a comic book is the art, but there’s not much more to say about Finch’s style: it’s suitably dark and moody and muscular, perfect for a story where the bad guys beat the even worse guys, with everything in shadow (literally and metaphorically), but he doesn’t seemed to have developed much in the years since I first saw (and enjoyed) his work, and there is a certain same-i-ness to his characters in anatomy and facial structure that means that other identifiers are needed to distinguish them. It’s not bad – Finch knows how to construct a good panel and a good page, and there is never confusion in the storytelling – but I would have preferred some advancement in his abilities.
Friday, 28 August 2015
Superman: Secret Origins #1–6
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank
It’s strange reading a story that came out in 2009/2010 that is now irrelevant due to the Nu52 rebooting the entire DC universe. It’s extra strange when the writer behind it is the Chief Creative Officer at DC – did he know that the story would be pointless when he was writing it? Did he just want to write his version of the Superman origin story before things changed? Did he want to leave a footnote to the history while he had the chance? When I think about what Johns was thinking about, it wrinkles my brain; I can’t imagine what it did to him … I have enjoyed work by this creative team before (I particularly enjoyed their Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes), so I thought I’d read this curio even if it has no connection to current DC continuity.
If you’re reading this blog, then you know the origin of Superman, so you don’t need the summary. The point here is to add details and see the story through a slightly different prism. For starters, Johns has a nice angle on the young Clark Kent: he’s developing his powers at puberty, as well as his feelings for Lana Lang, and then his adoptive parents reveal the truth to him, making him a young man in torment and confusion beyond normal adolescence. Johns also introduces some nice touches to the history (which, as mentioned previously, no longer matter), such as the lenses from the glasses he wears are from crystals from the rocket ship because they can absorb his heat vision and that the costume is Ma Kent’s idea from the crystal holograms of Krypton’s history. Johns is a big fan of DC, so he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about these little twists to established lore, and this story shows that he is enjoying adding these finesses.
A fortunate aspect of the art in this comic book is that Frank, a talented artist whose work I’ve always enjoyed, can actually draw teenage individuals, instead of just drawing slightly smaller adults with excessive musculature. I particularly enjoyed his teenage Clark – Christopher Reeve is the deliberate model for Clark (Johns was an intern and then production assistant with Richard Donner), and Frank captures him perfectly as a teenager. Later, he displays Clark ‘acting’ as the oaf in the crumpled suit, the goofy grin and the glasses, and it’s a nice bit of storytelling.
I mentioned the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the second issue firmly places them in the Superboy story (possibly because John Byrne’s Man of Steel deliberately removed them?), and I’ve got no problem with that, even if it doesn’t mean anything now (I really should stop harping on about that …), because Superman and the Legion should be entwined. The other aspect that is intrinsic to Superman’s origin is Lex Luthor, and Johns puts in extra twists of the science/business man who buys up 78% of Metropolis and controlling the newspapers and running the Luthor Lottery, which effectively controls the city’s working-class populace. These are interesting additions to the canon, and I like how the Daily Planet is handled, but the solid build-up doesn’t survive through to the action because the plotting seems a little mechanical and coincidental: a fat man turns into a monster within seconds of eating a toxic spill in a corridor; the man who puts on the Metallo suit to bring down Superman is a soldier who Lois’ dad has under his command and who of course wants to court Lois [an aside: I did like the placid smile on Clark’s face when the soldier tries to crush-shake Clark’s hand] and who when hurt is operated on by Luthor and sent back out as a condensed Metallo almost immediately, which stretches belief even in a comic book.
The Clark–Lois relationship is well handled, but the other side of the story doesn’t click together – I’ve found that this is a common problem with origin stories that try to add an action plot on top of the origin story (there is a reason why, in old comic books, origins were relegated to flashbacks: origins don’t always work as a complete story in their own right because they are just beginnings) – which means that the six issues don’t hold together as a whole. The book works as a love letter to Superman and Christopher Reeves, with some lovely Frank art and some nice embellishments to the origin story.
Monday, 24 August 2015
An explanation: by day, I’m a freelance medical editor; by night, I’m a geeky blogger with a silly sense of humour. When they combine, you get this. In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was released and became a sensation, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a sensation as well. Dialogue from the film was included in Prince’s Batdance song, which was everywhere that year as well, and the line spoken by Nicholson’s Joker, ‘This town needs an enema’, entered pop culture.
Fast-forward to now: the other day, I tweeted a line about a company needing an editor, and echoes of the past came back as the word ‘enema’ and ‘editor’ scanned the same in my head, going round and round. I suddenly had an idea for one of those meme things that the kids seem to like nowadays. Throw in a misspelling and I had a silly joke that made me smile. I hope it makes you smile as well.
Friday, 21 August 2015
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis
Wow, Geoff Johns really loves Hal Jordan, doesn’t he? There is no other hero more super: he’s the greatest because everyone keeps saying he’s the greatest, and no one else can do what he does. At least according to Johns. This is the equivalent of literary fellatio and it can sometimes feel too intimate to read.
This also reads as rather depressing because of the inherent morbidity. To paraphrase, let’s talk about death, baby: Batman (at the time this came out), J’onn J’onnz, Aquaman, Katana, Tim Drake, Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex, Jade (daughter of Alan Scott). DC, and to an extent its Chief Creative Officer, developed an unhealthy obsession with killing off characters or at least mutilating them in a bloody fashion in the years running up to the Nu52 reboot. Now, I’m not going to proselytise that superhero comic books should be devoid of death and grimness, because firstly that would make me a hypocrite (when I started reading comic books, I read 2000 AD and my first adventures in mainstream superhero comic books had the Mutant Massacre storyline, and I’ve turned out all right, relatively speaking), but secondly I’m not going to tell people how to do their jobs which they have earned (which I realise is an unusual attitude for a blogger). If stories are going to reflect a certain level of reality, then death is part of that reality and can’t be ignored. However, the obsession with violent deaths of characters for sake of sensationalism, headline grabbing or just to shake up the status quo is disturbing and doesn’t do anyone, not the readers or the writers or the industry as a whole, any good now or in the long run.
This book makes the unhealthy fascination with dead characters its central premise and almost fetishizes it: it visits the graves of Pa Kent, Ronnie Raymond, Ted Kord; the Teen Titans memorial, the Valhalla cemetery in Metropolis, the morgue of dead supervillains in the JLA headquarters (there is a double-page spread of dead heroes as Hal shows off the dead) – DC kills a lot of characters for the sake of stories, and it’s rather wearisome.
The sad thing is that the idea of this book is actually interesting – a Black Lantern power battery sends out thousands of rings that bring back to life all the dead heroes, creating a Black Lantern Corps decked in funky black uniforms, and sets them out to kill all the live heroes, which brings about drama and conflict as well as an examination of a character after death brought about by living a heroic life. It’s just a shame that the central conceit requires so much death for the story to work; it demonstrates how cheap death is in comic books and how regularly it is used (thus losing the intensity of the dramatic reason of death).
Johns is a good writer, despite his psychopathic tendencies, and he does set up the premise of the book well and escalates the tension before introducing the potential saviours in the form of the spectrum of the power rings (red=rage, orange=greed, yellow=terror, green=will, blue=hope, violet=love, indigo=compassion), which is an admittedly silly idea but then this is comic books and Johns knows how to sell it in the writing.
The art in this book is impressive from Reis – there are some great ‘Fuck Yeah!’ double-page spreads throughout, drawn spectacularly by Reis, such as the full complement of different Lantern corps arriving behind John Stewart and the spread of all the heroes arriving for the big fight at the end, but particularly the when the heroes turn into the White Lantern Corps – there is something especially cool about seeing Hal and Barry and Superman and Wonder Woman in white costumes that tickled the superhero-loving side of my brain something special. I’ve always thought that Reis was an above average exemplar of the current DC house style, but he does a great job here, and I shall have to upgrade my opinion; he has a strong style, good storytelling skills, sharp anatomy, a good line and a perfect choice for this sort of company-wide book.
Enjoying the book despite myself and the constant cheerleading for Hal Jordan, I did find the ending a bit weak after all the build-up and the hand-waving to return some heroes to life at the end was very flimsy. However, Blackest Night is an entertaining read and enjoyable while it lasts; if you love Hal Jordan as much as Johns does, you’ll probably enjoy it even more.