Webcomic Wednesday: Family Man

Family Man, webcomicTITLE: Family Man
CREATOR/AUTHOR/ARTIST: Dylan Meconis
INTERNET DEBUT: February 21, 2006

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

It can be incredibly gratifying to spend time combing through the through the internet, then stumble upon something worth reading or watching, created by an individual of incredible artistic talent. Likewise, it can also be incredibly frustrating to find something that is so remarkably well crafted, yet reeks of needlessly lewd content. Family Man is one of these..

Scott McCloud has written that comics have the potential to dip into a potpourri of different mediums. Not all comics have to be about people with masks and superpowers fighting crime. There are pulpy adventure comics like The Adventures of Tintin, or comics that take outlandish subjects and ground them in another conventional genre (or perhaps multiple genres), i.e. what Supernatural Law did as an outlandish humor-horror courtroom drama.

Family Man, image 2But some comics take a premise that doesn’t seem as interesting and eye-catching as those two, and then makes a genuinely compelling story out of them. In this case, Family Man does exactly that with the rather esoteric subject of 18th century German academia.

To cut a long story short, a half-Jewish theology student named Luther Levy winds up recruited as a lecturer at a university several months after being expelled from his own alma mater. He gets to know the rector, romances the librarian, and struggles with the inner turmoil of someone dealing with a crisis of faith and identity. There are also werewolves.

On paper, this is potentially one of the greatest webcomics I’ve ever read. It’s dramatic, beautifully drawn, and blessed with probably the most original plot I’ve ever come across in all of comics. Dylan Meconis (a lady, as it happens) is a spectacularly gifted storyteller. Her panel logic is both easy to read, pretty to look at, and smartly crafted.

Family Man, image 3However, that is where the other side of the coin comes in. Despite bearing witness to a Meconis’ strong talent, I cannot in good conscience overlook Family Man‘s explicit and graphic nudity and sex. I know the comic is designed for “mature” readers, and is definitely NSFW. But really, I must ask: Why?

There is nothing in this comic concerning plot, story, and character development which was furthered by the nudity. I have no doubt that someone as talented as Meconis could have gotten across that Luther and Ariana were having an affair without getting up-close and personal. Including scenes that only succeeded in unnecessarily shrinking her audience and alienating and disgusting people like me.

It’s such a shame, because Family Man is still a remarkably intelligent piece of work. Considering the creator has a background in literature, history, and philosophy, she obviously knows her stuff. The idea of centering the plot around a university campus in 18th century Germany, in addition to the werewolf subplot, is a stroke of genius.

First, take the drama of the lone heretic struggling against the religious establishment (in a way that’s halfway interesting, no less), not forgetting the hectic family politics back home. Next, add in a bit of supernatural horror. Season with vintage college frat boy antics, courtesy of Lucien the Frenchman, and add an entirely black-and-white color pallet to taste. The result? Family Man, a webcomic that is admittedly compelling if frustratingly obscene.

Images courtesy of lutherlevy.com.

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Webcomic Wednesday: Cleopatra in Space

Cleopatra in SpaceTITLE: Cleopatra in Space
CREATOR/AUTHOR/ARTIST: Mike Maihack
INTERNET RUN: August 16, 2009 to October 8, 2012

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

Cleopatra in Space is technically no longer operational, but it isn’t because the author decided to call it quits. It’s because he’s gone beyond the internet and established himself in the comics business outside of a purely internet following. Ladies and gentlemen, Cleopatra in Space is the first webcomic we’ve looked at here which has actually hit the big time.

Cleopatra in Space started off as the hobby of Mike Maihack, a small-time comic artist who liked to draw cats and superheroes. He eventually turned it into more than just a hobby, getting a graphic novel deal with Scholastic. The webcomic serves as the prototype to the graphic novel series, depicting its general tone and containing more-or-less the same characters and plot. It is important as both the foundation of the graphic novels and as a pleasant diversion.

The webcomic’s title almost says it all. Our hero is the teenaged Cleopatra VII, who has been pulled from her native era of 52 BC to the very, very distant future. She is enrolled in a military school where she must learn to the fight off an evil alien race, fulfilling her destiny as the prophesied heroine. When she decides to play hooky, however, that’s where things get interesting. Her mentor, a talking cat named Khensu, is going to have his hands full keeping her out of trouble.

Cleopatra in Space, image 1Drawing inspiration from old B-movies of the space opera persuasion, Cleopatra in Space is a delightfully fun, thoroughly enjoyable read. It’s foremost virtue is the author’s willingness to combine the blatantly silly with the appropriately serious. The core concept of an ancient Egyptian princess fighting evil aliens in space is too charmingly ridiculous not to like!

Cleo is a loveable protagonist, slightly reminiscent of the dorky yet unsinkable Stephanie Brown. She has an unbeatable gumption, the temperament of a not-so-typical teenage girl, and an adorable sense of bravado that is neither exaggerated nor played completely seriously. Cleo belongs to that old-fashioned class of hero, the sort of hero who can throw a punch, tell a joke, and kiss a girl (or guy, in her case). If anything, it’s as if she combines all of the best elements of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo of Star Wars into one hero while still having her own personality.

Also notable is her supporting cast, namely Khensu. I’ve never been particularly fond of cats, but a talking cat who is also a history teacher? Now you’re speaking my language! Khensu has this aura of quiet dignity about him which makes you forget that this is a talking feline in question. He’s the perfect straight-man to Cleo, highlighting the inherent silliness of her character with the even greater silliness of his own.

But for all the fun and silliness that this strip runs on, is still has the capacity for high drama. Khensu’s interview before a council of cat bureaucrats (Bureaucats?), where Cleo is eavesdropping, is a particularly notable scene. It gives exposition in a justified, engaging way, develops Khensu, and demonstrates Cleo’s range of emotion. I’m not sure if this faucet carries over to the graphic novels, but I’d love to find out.

Cleopatra in Space, image 2The first few strips, drawn in black and white, start off slow. But once things get into color, that’s the signal that the strip is about to become quality. The art itself is well-suited to the tone Maihack is communicating, with the soft lines, bright colors, and cartoony atmosphere. The fact that Maihack is able to use his art to set a diverse array of emotions is a mark of his understated talent.

All told, the webcomic version of Cleopatra in Space may be confined to the internet, but it is nevertheless worth reading. If nothing else, it is a wonderful preview for the graphic novel series. The official preview for the first book in the Cleopatra in Space graphic novel series, Target Practice, is available on Maihack’s official site. If you want to help get your kids interested in comics, or reading in general, this is exactly the sort of thing you should draw their attention to.

Images courtesy of cowshell.com

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An Ant-Man Review – Cartoony, But Still Quality

Ant-Man (2015)TITLE: Ant-Man

STARRING: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena, and Michael Douglas
DIRECTOR: Peyton Reed
STUDIO: Marvel

RATING: PG-13

RUN TIME: 117 Minutes
RELEASED: July 17, 2015

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

The character of Ant-Man is blessed with slightly more fame and prestige than the Guardians of the Galaxy, but retains an inherent aura of silliness about him. Simply put, how does a superhero whose primary power is shrinking himself down to ant-size actually get anything done? Fortunately, Ant-Man embraces that aura with every ounce of energy it has, and combines it with the trappings of a heist movie. The result is probably the most original superhero film ever made.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, a recently released cat-burglar who’s trying to go straight. He tries to find honest work. Meanwhile, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is rattled to discover that his former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is developing his own version of the Ant-Man technology for military applications. Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) wind up recruiting Scott to don the Ant-Man suit and to “break into a place and steal some s—” one last time.

Ant-Man, image 1From the very beginning of the film, a tone is established that hasn’t been set since Iron Man. Instead of dramatic orchestral music, there’s fast-paced Mexican salsa music. It’s there from the very start. Scott and Luis are bantering back and forth, setting up jokes and keeping the air light. Hank Pym is an older scientist and retired superhero with a chip on his shoulder, sort of like Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond. The sheer life that Rudd and Douglas bring to their respective roles practically reverberates off the screen.

Iron Man was notable for combining action with comedy. If Iron Man did it a little, Ant-Man does it a lot. There are so many moments that are genuinely hilarious, often involving sight gags and dramatic irony. Likewise, the comedic atmosphere brought on by Rudd, Douglas, Pena, and the other bit-players infuses the entire movie with this fun, silly, unabashedly humorous vibe. Douglas in particular is a great straight man to Rudd, as is a special guest Avenger who briefly shows up in the middle of the movie as part of a silly interlude.

Ant-Man, image 2There are two specific actors who are particularly notable for different reasons. First, Evangeline Lilly, who plays Hope Van Dyne, brings a great deal of emotion to her role, nicely rounding out the cast with Rudd and Douglas. She has plenty to do and contributes to the story, in much the same way that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Pots did in the Iron Man movies. Her romantic subplot with Scott is partly played for laughs, which is a pretty good way to handle it.

And then there’s Darren Cross, a.k.a. Yellowjacket. Cross is probably the most cartoonishly evil villain ever to walk on screen in an MCU film. He tortures cute-looking sheep. He openly complains about his company not being able to partake in blatantly illegal activities. He casually vaporizes people who may slightly hinder his plans. Oh, and he does business with Hydra cronies.

Ant-Man, image 3, Darren CrossI could write a whole review about how this movie is decidedly anti-corporation and anti-weapon, but I think I’ll let the audience find out for themselves. Cross here is just a Lex Luthor knock-off, with Corey Stoll apparently aping Kevin Spacey’s take on that character in Superman Returns. There’s an attempt to make Cross look like a victim of Pym’s neglect. It’s implied that his work with the Yellowjacket formula is messing with his brain, but there’s no foreshadowing at all. Cross is an evil jackhat at the beginning and an evil jackhat at the end.

But all told, Ant-Man manages to impress me in a way that few other superhero movies have. I got some good laughs, I was entertained and had fun, and it made me eager to see what a sequel would be like. Paul Rudd is great as Ant-Man, as is Evangeline Lilly as Hope. Michael Douglas as Hank Pym and Michael Pena as Luis know how to pull their weight too. As a quick heads-up, there are two after credits sequences. One is at the end of the fancy credits sequence, and the other is at the end of the regular credit sequence. Moviegoers, be aware!

RATING: 8/10

Images 1 and 2 from rottentomatoes.com. Image 3 from geeksofdoom.com.

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An Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1 Review – The Right Ending

The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1TITLE: The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1
AUTHOR: Dan Slott
PENCILLER: Adam Kubert
PUBLISHER: Marvel
PRICE: $3.99
RELEASED: August 1, 2015

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

While my knowledge of Spider-Man stories is, at best, limited even I have enough knowledge of the Spidey mythos to know that The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1 brings Spider-Man in an incredible new direction which is both innovative and compelling.

This issue focuses on how Peter Parker is happily living with his wife Mary Jane and daughter Annie. He’s balancing his family time with his crimefighting life, and things are looking up for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. But all is not well for long. Daredevil and Iron Fist are MIA! The Avengers are spooked about some Lex Luthor knock-off! There’s a prison break at Ryker’s Island! Worst of all, Spider-Man’s deadliest enemy has targeted the wall-crawler’s loved ones. Will our hero save the day?

I was pleased to find out that little knowledge of the ever-controversial One More Day story is required to enjoy this comic. I know enough to understand that this is the Spider-Man story  fans have been waiting for since that odious storyline was published. Nor is Secret Wars itself required reading, as proudly proclaimed on the first page.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1, interiorBeyond that, this issue gets nearly everything right. Peter Parker stays in character, given the new situation. Mary Jane and the rest of Spider-Man’s supporting cast are used well, though the latter are not featured prominently. The real villain of this issue, revealed about halfway through, is a perfect choice for the antagonist. I won’t say who it is for the sake of spoilers, but I will say that it would be a very different tone and even plot if it were anyone else.

Mary Jane in particular is more than Peter’s love interest, to the point of almost being a second lead. She uses her head to do something useful, to help protect her child and to help Peter to save both their skins.

Most of this issue consists of laying groundwork for what’s to come. In the mix of all that, however, is one wild card that hasn’t been seriously pondered since the end of The Clone Saga in the ’90s: Annie Parker. The idea of Peter Parker going on to start his own family isn’t entirely new, as evidenced by Spider-Girl several years ago. However, this issue lays the groundwork for a story that’s never been told before. The aforementioned Spider-Girl was focused on the titular character, while here, the story is centered on Peter himself.

The thing about Spider-Man is that he grows as the story grows. As he gets older, and naturally progresses into new phases of life, new thematic factors present themselves to be utilized in the comics. It was only when an attempt was made to turn the clock back via editorial mandate that problems occurred, resulting in a bad reaction from the fans.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1, image 2In this case, Peter is adapting to new changes in his personal life, which influence his character development in this issue. The no-kill rule, with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility, etc., are all challenged by the events of the issue, to great effect. As Pete says via internal monologue in the last pages of this issue, “That was the day I learned what trumps great power… …An even greater responsibility.”

The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows promises to be an imaginatively groundbreaking series which I will continue to follow. It not only brings back the Peter/MJ dynamic that we all know and love, but it throws in some refreshingly new takes on cornerstones of the Spider-Man mythos. Most importantly, Dan Slott, does all of these things quite well, not missing a single beat. A definite must-read.

Image 1 from thepunkeffect.com. Image 2 fromcomicbookrevolution.com.

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Webcomic Wednesday: Black and Blue

Black and Blue pg 15-1TITLE: Black and Blue
CREATOR/WRITER/ARTIST: Jason Clarke
ONLINE DEBUT: August 19, 2014

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

In the forward to Gotham Central, Vol. 2: Jokers and Madmen, Duane Swierczynski stated that noir essentially means “screwed.” That is to say, you can tell a story is noir if everyone is headed for a decidedly unpleasant ending, or at least not a happy one. By this definition, “screwed” described Gotham Central pretty well, and it describes Black and Blue even better.

Black and Blue is a fairly recent webcomic, and like many of the comics featured in this column, rather obscure. It depicts a sci-fi/noir world, where foul-mouthed gangsters walk alongside robot thugs. The inciting incident sees a woman try to escape from some kind of imprisoned labor by cutting off her own head and sending it somewhere. This spins into a sequence of events that slowly bring together a spiderweb of characters, from a pair of dirty cops, to a hapless bike messenger named Owen, to a local criminal gang.

The main draw of Black and Blue is its devotion noir style storytelling. Noir itself isn’t so much a genre as it is a visual style, but the elements of classic noir films are pervasive throughout the entire comic. The titular colors dominate this comic’s cover palette (with occasional bursts of red blood), giving it a very noir-like look. As a result, Black and Blue is one of the most creatively stylish webcomics I’ve ever read.

Black and Blue pg 41-1Black and Blue isn’t just beautiful to look at, but also has a quite compelling story. Mixing in a decidedly bizarre sci-fi concept is a clever way to make the story memorable, but the story doesn’t stand on that leg alone. Each of the large cast of characters has something that makes them stand out. For instance, Unger, a loanshark/butcher who Owen’s father owes money to, has a jovially sadistic feel to him. Virgil, one of the aforementioned robot thugs, is a total jackhat whose trigger-happy mentality and loud mouth nearly get him killed. Not your typical portrayal of a robot, eh?

Owen himself is a very morose, sympathetic character, stuck working for, in his words, “terrible people.” He really is a proper anti-hero. He’s not particularly brave or tough or clever or good-looking, but he has a gumption and sense of morality about him that keeps him going. He’s probably the only genuine good guy in the  story, which I believe is the point. He has my vote for the one guy in the noir story who gets the happy ending.

Another thing about this comic is that it is how incredibly intense it is. Just when you think things are slowing down, and you think you know what’s going on, something happens which turns everything on its head. You think you know how the story is going to unfold, and then you’re left in the dust. This is usually accomplished by introducing a new character, but that’s where my one criticism of Black and Blue comes in.

Black and Blue pg 90Black and Blue‘s large cast keeps getting larger. We’re introduced to a higher-up called Seagull, a back-alley doctor of some kind with a connection to the woman from the inciting incident, and a hired gun with a TV for a head. I have this feeling that eventually Jason Clarke might write himself into a corner, and when we finally get the big payoff, it will fall flat as Clarke rushes to pull everything together. However, I remain optimistic about his ability to tell this story well. The strands of the story are slowly coming together, and I believe that given time, it will weave itself into a beautiful tapestry.

Clarke himself is an obscure talent who deserves some spotlight. He’s actually putting up issues of Black and Blue for sale in a digital format. I don’t know how that will correspond to the webcomic itself, but I’m glad that he’s getting his work out in other ways. I sincerely believe that if his webcomic had a more solid marketing approach (i.e. Twitter, etc.) he could easily generate a more prominent following.

Black and Blue demonstrates the potential of one of what I am sure are many strong talents out there. It combines stylish art with engaging storytelling and memorable, believable characters that keep you interested. Any comic that reminds me of Gotham Central is worth a look-see. However, I will warn that it contains frequent strong language in addition to some graphic violence, including blood and gore. It may draw inspiration from classic noir, but in these respects, it is quite dissimilar.

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Webcomic Wednesday: Mare Internum

Mare IntervmTITLE: Mare Internum
CREATOR/WRITER/ARTIST: Der-shing Helmer
ONLINE DEBUT: January 4, 2015

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

For a webcomic that’s only been up and running for seven months, Mare Internum manages to impress me even in its early stages. I came across this little gem on Twitter, another tell-tale sign of the great importance of social media in comics today. Der-shing Helmer, a freelance game artist by day, serves as the creator, writer, and artist of this webcomic, where she shows her creative mettle on all fronts. Mare Internum combines professional art, an inventive premise, and memorable characters to communicate a story worth reading.

The story starts off on a grim note, with our anti-hero hero, Michael, attempting to end his own life. Thankfully, he doesn’t go through with it. Michael is a member of a team of scientists on Mars, apparently working on some kind of pre-colonization effort. His melancholy and ambivalence toward his boss is interrupted by the arrival a new coworker, Dr. Rebekah “Bex” Egunsola. The story slowly unfolds, revealing more about the world of Mare Internum, and explaining why Michael is in such a bad spot.

Mare IntervmFollowing the road not taken, we have a protagonist who has already hit rock bottom at the beginning of the story. But instead of showing him shrugging his way through it, Helmer instead shows us the consequences and logical results of someone trying to get through personal tragedy all by themselves. The truth is, those who don’t value the company of their fellow man are bound to fall into despair and loneliness. The comic hasn’t gotten far enough into the story to draw out the full ramifications of Michael’s bond with an A.I. he created, but I wouldn’t be surprised if things went that way.

Aside from this particular innovation, Helmer writes her characters well, demonstrating that this isn’t just another science-fiction story insomuch as it is a character drama. Michael is melancholy and emotionally imbalanced. Bex is chipper and sardonic. Michael’s other coworkers each have their own personalities and quirks that make them unique and fun to watch. The cast of Mare Internum are all distinguishable from one another, each bringing something different to the table. Above all, the story puts the characters first, the mark of any truly great work of fiction. The natural, smooth dialogue only bolsters this element of the story.

I especially like how Helmer patterns her art to tell the story in sync with the words. Comics, being primarily a visual medium, require imagery which catches the eye’s interest. Helmer does this expertly by focusing on the beauty of the mundane, such as Michael scarfing down a box of blueberries, or an insect floating on its back in a pool of water. She’s really good with facial expressions too, finding a middle ground between the exaggerated facial expressions of Manga-style comics and the more realistic depictions found in western comics. That’s all without mentioning her lovely art featuring the Martian landscape.

Mare InternvmAs stated, Helmer is a freelance video game artist by day, but her background is in biology and education. According to her bio, this knowledge helps her with things like anatomy and physics. Following the philosophy of write-what-you-know, I would guess that an understanding of anatomy would help her when drawing characters, while an understanding of physics would help her in writing a sci-fi story like this webcomic.

Mare Internum is still young, but I think it has the potential to grow a large following. Helmer also works on another, more long-running webcomic called The Meek, which I might take a look at some time in the future. As it is, Mare Internum has an abundance of good qualities, namely professional-looking art, innovating writing, and strong characters and emotion. A word to the wise, however: This webcomic may not be visually graphic, but it contains instances of incredibly strong language. Parents, be warned.

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Webcomic Wednesday: True Villains

True Villains, image 1TITLE: True Villains
CREATORS: Joshua Kurtz and Madison Hughes
WRITERS: Kurtz and Hughes
ARTIST: Max Karpsten
ONLINE DEBUT: August 8, 2007

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

Word of mouth can be a powerful tool. It was through the recommendation of a friend that I was introduced to the webcomic True Villains, an adventure-fantasy webcomic that appears to have stayed largely under the radar. Its website is understated, it has less than 30 Twitter followers, and I hadn’t heard of it from any other source until now. But it definitely deserves more of a spotlight because of its clever writing and unique premise.

True Villains features the adventures and exploits of Sebastian Jalek, a former adventurer of the lawful  and good persuasion who gleefully jumps on board the chaotic  and evil bandwagon. He enters the service of Xaneth, a demon who runs a dungeon with Elia, a necromancer. Along the way, he picks up other colleagues and companions: Mia, magically attuned child, and Bayn, an aged sorcerer who is stuck in the body of a child.

The main draw of True Villains is how it seeks to take standard adventure-fantasy RPG tropes and turn them on their heads. The main cast is made up self-professed bad guys, a whole team of villain protagonists. The entire story, however, centers around them trying to accomplish fairly pragmatic objectives through flagrantly gruesome and ruthless means.

True Villains, image 2Sebastian’s entire arc focuses on him trying to define his own ethical code. It comes to the point where he makes a self-justifying speech before his former adventuring pals about his newly acquired Blue and Orange morality. Oddly, most of the “good guys” are at best self-righteous jerks and at worst stupid and vicious bullies. Nevertheless, the fact that True Villains even dared to go down the road not taken and examine in depth the whys and wherefores of morality in such a world is a mark of true brilliance.

Aside from unconventional takes on the concepts of good and evil, most of which I have very strong opinions on, True Villains benefits from smart writing and proficient art. The tone of the strip is generally lighthearted, though its subject matter frequently ventures into the realm of dark comedy. One early gag involves Sebastian being assigned by Xaneth to blow up an innocent, unsuspecting small town where everyone is happy and content. It’s played for both drama and laughs, which, while fairly innovative, still bothers me.

Strong characters are an essential element of any good story. From Bayn to Claire the soldier to Sebastian himself, each of the characters has a strong, understandable motivation, personality, and flaws. Sebastian wants to do his own thing and help his friends, darn the consequences. Elia is loyal to Xaneth, wants to keep people she cares about out of harm’s way, and kind of likes Sebastian. Mia is loyal to Sebastian and has all the silly innocence a six-year-old girl with magical powers could have. What all of these characters have in common is that they change and grow as the story continues.

True Villains, image 3Particularly notable in this webcomic is its natural and flowing approach to world building. We don’t get stilted expository dialogue or long walls of text. When something about the world needs to be explained, the need is justified, often for humor, and the exposition is done in a clean, simple, engaging way. The result is a rich, detailed world that feels perfectly understandable and immersive. Other writers would do well to learn from True Villains in this regard.

The art of True Villains has evolved and changed since the early strips. It began more stripped down and less sophisticated than it is now. Over time, however, it became more organic, no doubt the sign of an amateur artist steadily improving his craft. Most of the comic’s archive strips are black and white, though it’s always in color these days. The point here is that the art may be drawn by an amateur, but the quality of the work is that of a seasoned professional.

The primary writer on this series, Joshua Kurtz, is a talented and ambitious (if obscure) creative mind. He is heavily involved in theater productions, to the point of having written and produced a musical based on True Villains. The talents of he and his colleagues definitely deserve the spotlight. With a more intentional buildup of their fan-base, a slicker website, and a more savvy approach to social media and internet marketing, they could probably make it really big. They have plenty of good content, now they just need to focus on their delivery and packaging.

True Villains is a unique, inventive webcomic that defies the storytelling limits of the fantasy genre. It makes you laugh out loud, creates complex and memorable characters, and contemplates weighty concepts in a competent manner. I won’t pretend to be a fan of the strip’s trivialization of occult practices, nor am I completely satisfied with its advocacy of what is essentially moral nihilism, but I will admit one thing: It is a fine example of great comics and great storytelling, and therefore deserves attention.

Images from truevillains.com.

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Webcomic Wednesday: Space Corps

Space Corps, image 1TITLE: Space Corps
CREATORS: Gannon Beck, Bryan Richmond, Joey Groah.
WRITERS: Beck, Richmond.
ARTIST: Beck.
ONLINE DEBUT: July 10, 2012

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

Not every webcomic makes you want to keep reading. Most start out good, but eventually descend into mediocrity, at best. Fortunately, all is not lost. Out of the dozens upon dozens of webcomics out there, there are a select few which I would like to highlight in this new weekly column: Webcomic Wednesday!

Space Corps, by Gannon Beck and Bryan Richmond, is a small operation, but it produces original, quality content that keeps fans waiting patiently while things get sorted out on the other end of the internet. Described as space opera, Space Corps follows the story of how humans and aliens band together in the titular military organization to fight off the malicious Winnowers. We’re introduced to the rookie soldier Deven Taylor, along with Corporal Hive, an alien NCO made up of bees, and Captain Brockett, the rock-eating commanding officer.

I first stumbled on this comic while perusing ComicsExperience.com, a haven for independent comic book writers struggling to hone their craft and hit the big time. Beck is part of that community. Beck and Richmond may not have hit the big time quite yet, but they and their compatriots have most definitely honed their craft. The art alone is incredibly professional, matching the tone and feel of the story perfectly. Specifically, it’s cartoonish enough to fit the fantastic premise of the story but realistic enough to be appropriate to the highly sophisticated writing.

B2-aVfVCEAALKdpAs is frequently made obvious in even the best mainstream comics, no amount of lavish art will save a poorly written story. Fortunately, Space Corps is lucky enough to be blessed with both good art and excellent writing. The sheer human, or rather alien drama that we see in Space Corps #0 is amazing to read. Captain Brockett’s story remains my personal favorite, just because it’s so movingly tragic and harsh. It’s not every day that I read something, least of all on the internet, that actually makes me genuinely sad.

The rest of the stories we see here are nothing short of splendid. Hive’s story is a classic bait-and-switch, with a pleasant surprise that makes it truly memorable. Hive is probably my second-favorite alien character behind Brockett. When we get into Taylor’s origin story in Space Corps #1-2, things get particularly interesting for him. Taylor’s is a coming-of-age story at heart, with the space opera and military fiction elements making the whole thing even more interesting. It shows that he has a personal stake in the fight, which makes him one of many great characters.

Space Corps, image 3I’m sure that Beck’s military family background gives him a lot of material to work with. He and Richmond navigate the standard tropes and conventions of military fiction with an easy realism that demonstrates that they plainly have a strong knowledge of military life. They never resort to clichés, and everything feels smooth and natural. We see what goes on in boot camp with great details that bring the reader into the story. The despair of family lost to war is communicated in a piercingly emotional way. The ethos of not fighting alone, trusting your team, and being self-disciplined and self-sacrificial is a primary theme. Sometimes it feels like I’m reading Lone Survivor by Marcus Lutrell all over again.

For all this talk of the horror and devastation of war, Space Corps is actually a rather upbeat comic. The humor is usually of the gallows variety. This is, after all, a comic about war. However, the comic itself is a very fun read. It makes you want to keep reading more of it. It’s not on the level of wacky, zany antics of, say, Brenden Fletcher’s Batgirl, but it can still be comedic when it needs to be comedic and dramatic when it needs to be dramatic. The result is a brilliant cocktail of great comics.

Gannon Beck and Bryan Richmond have said that they and their co-creators were originally thinking of pitching Space Corps to Image Comica. Then they decided to say, “Heck with it, we want to make comics so let’s make this now.” The result is a spectacular piece of work that I wouldn’t want made any other way. If Beck and Richmond and the rest of the team behind Space Corps do get their comic made into a magazine format that they can make money off of, I gladly salute them. If it came to that, I personally wouldn’t mind paying money for something this good. But for now, I’m glad to enjoy it all free of charge.

Images 1 and 2 from twitter.com/gannonb. Image 3 from spacecorpscomics.com.

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A Review of The Flash, Season 1 – Don’t Be Afraid to Smile

flash_ver2TITLE: The Flash, Season 1
STARRING: Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Jesse L. Martin, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh
CREATORS: Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Geoff Johns
RATING: TV-PG
NETWORK: The CW
SERIES PREMIERE DATE: October 7, 2014

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

I was never drawn to Arrow. It was mostly the ho-hum reviews that I read online, but also because I’m not a huge Green Arrrow fan. Any character done right is worth attention (see Marvel’s Daredevil), but I remained highly skeptical of Arrow, and still do. I watched a couple of episodes on Netflix, and decided it wasn’t worth my time to endure the agony of a crappy first season until it got “really, really good.”

That said, I actually adore The Flash. I looked forward to watching it each week, and I came away from the season finale wanting more. How is it that two shows, both on the CW, both created by similar creative teams, and even occupying a shared universe, managed to make me look at them in wildly different ways?

2060_oriThe Flash stars Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, a nerdy young CSI for the Central City Police Department. He’s obsessed with proving the innocence of his jailed father, Henry Allen (John Wesley Shipp, who played Barry Allen in the 1990s The Flash TV series). Henry was convicted years ago of murdering Barry’s mother in a strangely fantastical incident that Barry witnessed as a child. There was a big, yellow streak involved. Then one day, at the activation of the new S.T.A.R. Labs Particle Accelerator, things go horribly wrong. There’s an explosion in conjunction with a lightning storm. Barry is struck by lightning while working in his strangely grungy-looking CSI lab.

Barry wakes up from a coma nine months later, being tended by S.T.A.R. Labs personnel Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), and Dr. Caitlyn Snow (Danielle Panabaker), to find that he has super speed, a healing factor, and a need to eat lots and lots of food. His surrogate father, police detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) warns him not to tell his daughter, and Barry’s longtime crush, Iris West (Candice Patton), about what’s going on. Barry soon dons a scarlet costume and works with the S.T.A.R. Labs team to take down delinquent “meta-humans” who also gained powers through the particle accelerator explosion. Meanwhile, Dr. Wells is hiding a deep, dark secret…

Also, Joe’s partner, Detective Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett), shows up and begins dating Iris.

The Flash, Arrow, crossoverFrom what I saw of Arrow, the two shows do have a few things in common: They’re both drenched in bathos and melodrama and almost none of the characters look above 30. But aside from that, they couldn’t be any more different. Where Arrow is dominated by soulless and crushing despair, The Flash is the most upbeat TV drama I’ve seen since White Collar. It’s not just the abundance of humor. It’s stories are made to be as fun as possible, with no pretentions of being realistic or serious. After all, how serious can a show about a guy who runs really fast punching criminals be?

Early episodes of the show went with a straightforward police-procedural feel. But as the show got more confident, it eventually transformed into full-blown comic-booky science fiction craziness.

Arguably the two best things about this show are the Joe West and Harrison Wells characters. Joe is just a fun character to watch. He’s so blithely incredulous about the craziness going on around him that it’s impossible not to find him endearing. I love that he’s really the only one who has a problem with Barry and his friends locking up all the meta-humans they capture in a completely illegal private prison. There’s also an actual Tumblr devoted to his unique facial expressions. Joe West reminds me of a more laidback version of Crispus Allen from Gotham Central.

Tom Cavanagh, Harrison WellsThen there’s Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells. Cavanagh spends most of the season in a wheelchair, but it’s incredible how subtly he gets his character across. I enjoyed how they played up Wells’ similarities to Joe, in that they’re both father figures to Barry. It all leads up to a great payoff in the end that gives us an excellent performance by Cavanagh as a maniacally evil mad scientist. He’s interesting to watch at all times.

As for other villains, The Flash suffers from a tired “freak of the week” format, but it’s redeemed by a particularly fun group of recurring villains. There are the Rogues, led by Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), who deserves special mention. He sounds like he’s channeling Clint Eastwood half the time, but he’s obviously having a lot of fun in the role. Some of the best and craziest episodes of the series involve both he and his fellow Rogues, Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell) and Golden Glider (Peyton List). Purcell is probably the hammiest actor on the show next to Mark Hamill’s much-ballyhooed guest star as the Trickster. And who can forget the Reverse Flash the Man in the Yellow Suit?

Granted, The Flash won’t win any writing awards. For instance, the love triangle between Barry, Iris, and Eddie seems contrived at best and creepy at worst. On one hand, there’s no real conflict between Eddie and Barry because they’re both really nice guys. Barry doesn’t want to hurt Iris or Eddie, and those two are completely oblivious to Barry’s feelings. On the other hand, Iris herself said in the first episode that she and Barry were like “brother and sister.” Ick. It didn’t help much when they decided to pair Iris with Eddie. It was a pathetically obvious effort to inject some cheap drama into the plot. Incidentally, Eddie and Iris actually make a pretty good couple.

The Flash, Harrison Wells, Eddie ThawneEddie’s mere presence here is a possible sign that this show was only half-baked when it first went on the air. First we have the Totally-Not-Evil Dr. Wells doing his thing. Then we have some guy whose name is Eddie Thawne, which fans of the comics will know sounds a lot like Eobard Thawne, the alter ego of the Reverse Flash. You’d think that the writers would use this as a gold mine for an intriguing subplot, especially since in the promotional materials Eddie was touted as having a “dark secret.”

But that intrigue of peters out, and Eddie fades into the background as the series goes on, particularly when Team Flash begins dealing with Firestorm. But the finale actually addresses this problem, after much else has been revealed. Believe it or not, it actually works! When the series ends, Eddie is seen in an entirely different light.

For all its faults, The Flash won me over because of one simple truth: It’s fun. The crazy plots, the spectacular, super-powered battles, the silly melodrama, the obligatory DCU references, the self-aware humor. Even the mediocre CGI and other special effects were endearing. Bottom line, if you like superheroes with no pretentions of seriousness (think Thor, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, with a bit of Batman ’66 thrown in), then you’ll absolutely love The Flash.

Something tells me that DC is beginning to understand that their heroes can afford to smile now and then.

RATING: 8/10

Image 1 from rottentomatoes.com. Image 2 from theinsightfulpanda.wordpress.com. Image 3 from theflash.wikia.com. Image 4 from etonline.com.

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A Marvel’s Daredevil, Season 1 Review – Street-Level Grit and Superhero Tropes

Daredevil-Character-Poster-Matt-MurdockTITLE: Marvel’s Daredevil, Season 1
STARRING: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Toby Leonard Moore
CREATOR: Drew Goddard
RATING:
TV-MA
NETWORK: Netflix
SERIES PREMIERE DATE: April 10, 2015

By Levi Sweeney
Staff Writer, Grand X

I was beyond excited when I the trailers for Marvel’s Daredevil first came out. Subsequently, I was beyond awed at just how immensely intelligent and incredibly produced this series is. I plowed through all 13 episodes in three days. It was better than I could ever have imagined.

Marvel has delivered what is quite possibly their best executed, best made superhero property since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Of course, it may not be entirely fair to compare the two, since Daredevil is an experimental internet television series and Winter Soldier is the second big screen solo outing of an established superhero. However, they share one common trait: They both raised the bar for not just Marvel movies, but superhero movies everywhere. But only Daredevil broke entirely new ground for what can be accomplished in internet-based entertainment.

Marvel's Daredevil, Matt Murdock, Charlie CoxMarvel’s Daredevil follows Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a lawyer blinded as a child but blessed with enhanced senses which allow him to “see” better than a normal person. By day, he works with his law partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and his secretary and former client Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). By night, however, he patrols the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, fighting bad guys and saving innocents. And by “fighting,” I mean beating the bloody tar out of anyone he sees doing dirty deeds. But he slowly begins to come across loose pieces of evidence, things that don’t add up. Someone’s trying to unite all of the rival crime outfits under one banner. And that someone has a name.

(Here’s a hint: He’s played by Vincent D’Onofrio.)

I’ve heard this series called everything from “Batman Begins meets The Wire” to “dark and gritty done right.” It’s both, actually. But it’s also so much more. Daredevil explores a corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we haven’t seen since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk: The grimy, broken down corner where the less-than-glamorous people make their home, where no amount of superhero bling and bang will change the real problems. Of course, this translates to a TV show about a blind ninja fighting a fat mobster whose big secret plan basically amounts to an evil gentrification scheme.

Marvel's Daredevil, Netflix, black costumeBut like Batman Begins before it, victory is in the execution. Unlike Batman Begins, however, Daredevil knows when to be smart and when to be comic-bookish. Probably the most comic-bookish sequence in the entire series is when Matt fights somebody who’s dressed in red-and-black ninja garb. It’s awesome. Then again, the sheer amount of blood and gore on this show probably offsets it quite a bit. But there’s a lot more to this show than any of that.

What makes Daredevil unique boils down to two things: The first is that it addresses real world problems in an intelligent and thought provoking way. Take Wilson Fisk’s evil gentrification plan, for example. In the real world, many reformers are concerned about the possibility of gentrification displacing poor people. While this fear may or may not be misplaced, I’ll grant you this series was intelligent and bold enough to take such a prickly issue and make it the focal point of the plot, and to great success. As a result, Daredevil has been catapulted into the upper echelons of TV entertainment.

Marvel's Daredevil, Netflix, fightThe second key to the series’ uniqueness is how it explores common superhero tropes and plot lines. How did Matt procure his costume? How does he function with all the injuries he sustains while fighting bad guys? What moral justification does Matt, a lawyer sworn to abide by the law, have to engage in violent vigilante justice? As Matt’s priest, Father Lantom (eagle-eyed comic book readers will recognize the character from Brian K. Vaughan’s The Runaways) says, “Another man’s evil does not make you good.” This last issue is brought to the forefront most excellently in the episode “Nelson vs. Murdock,” a particularly enjoyable installment. The show doesn’t always bother to answer the deep questions it raises, but like BBC’s Sherlock, it stands out as one of those rare TV shows that forces you to think.

Wilson Fisk, while never actually called “The Kingpin” as he is in the comics, is more than a match for our hero. Vincent D’Onofrio gives us a definitive version of Wilson Fisk. Depicted as a psychopathic murderer and cunning gangster with the mind of a child, D’Onofrio portrays a very human Fisk. Fisk here is a man who, like Matt, is haunted by a traumatic childhood. When Fisk and Matt collide, it only gets better. Fisk’s lady love, Vanessa, is a classy, wise woman who plays a pivotal role in shaping his development in the second half of the series. (Incidentally, Vanessa is played by Ayelet Zurer, who also portrayed Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s mom, in Man of Steel.)

Marvel's Daredevil, Netflix, Wilson Fisk, Vincent D'OnofrioD’Onofrio may be the definite stand out, but the rest of the cast also know how to pull their weight. Cox brings a strong degree of realism and emotion to his portrayal of Matt Murdock, making us wonder if he’s fighting for good for goodness sake, or because it’s how he gets his kicks. Charlie Cox even worked with actual blind people in order to learn tics and habits characteristic of the blind. Elden Henson is a great Foggy Nelson. He provides good comic relief, but also has an excellent capacity for a wide range of emotions. He’ll go down in the history books with Carlos Valdes’ Cisco from The Flash and Kat Dennings’ Darcy from the Thor movies as one of the great comic relief characters in superhero cinema. And what appraisal of acting talent would be complete without mentioning Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple? Both are exceptionally acted, interesting, and well-written characters. I can’t wait to see Dawson again when she comes back to reprise her role for the Luke Cage series.

This show is also great from a purely technical sense. The lighting on this show is beautiful. I mean, look at it! Most of it comes from street lamps, car headlights, police sirens, etc., enhancing the show’s gritty, street-level feel. The sheer innovation behind such effects is staggering. And then there’s the production design. Not a single set in this show looks cheap or reused, even the sets that are used repeatedly. Every time an old set reappears on the screen, I feel like I’m seeing something new in it. The look of the show matches the tone of the story, and that’s an element that works wonders when pulled off right.

Netflix's Daredevil, Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann WollThe only thing that really bugged me about this show is Karen Page. She’s portrayed as a bit more than your average damsel-in-distress. She’s knows her way around a gun, and gets a chance to kick some butt. But she really didn’t hit home for me as a character. She’s not superfluous or anything. She’s important to the plot and gets a lot done with Ben Urich, but I just have difficultly connecting with her as a character. I don’t immediately like Karen Page the way I like Matt or Foggy or Claire. I just don’t get Karen.

Two final things I’d like to highlight are the action sequences and the show’s portrayal of organized crime. Much praise has been heaped upon Daredevil’s realistic yet cool-looking fight scenes. The fight scenes here are choreographed very differently than from what you might find in Winter Soldier or The Avengers. The TV-MA-earning blood and gore aside, the fights scenes here have Matt and his enemies stopping to get back up off the ground and take on the other guy before he’s finished recovering from the last brutal attack. Matt takes more punishment than he dishes out half the time. But man, does he know how to fight! These scenes are structured in a way that casts the combatants as breakable humans, not titanic, superhuman bulldozers.

Marvel's Daredevl, Netflix, costumeBeing a crime buff, I loved the way they portrayed the organized crime entities in this show. They even give us a decent explanation of why the traditional Italian mob is nowhere to be seen. You’ve got the Russians, there’s the Yakuza, and the local chapter of the Chinese Triads. We also see a couple of characters pulled right from the comics: Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton), a money launderer, and Turk Barrett (Rob Morgan), a two-bit thug with lousy luck. They’re all portrayed fairly accurately, with the foreigners speaking in their native tongues when English-speakers are not present, and each having their own individual quirks. They all have their respective motivations and agendas independent of Fisk. They’re all testaments to the show’s devotion to good characterization.

On the whole, Marvel’s Daredevil is an amazing show. It has great acting, great writing, great everything. I was psyched to hear that it has been renewed for a second season, to be released in 2016. I look forward to re-watching the first season and absorbing all the threads and grooves that made it so enjoyable the first time. Mind you though, this is definitely TV-MA. Make sure the kids don’t find this on your Netflix account. Save it for later. Much later. Trust me, they’ll love you for that when the time comes, because this series is otherwise incredible.

RATING: 10/10

Image 5 from nypost.com. All other images from rottentomatoes.com.

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