Review ~ Justice League #22

War Begins in Justice League #22
By David Rondinelli

1Trinity War gets its official start in Justice League #22, in which we see battle lines drawn as two of the three teams start with a face-off that takes readers into the fictional city of Kahndaq, Africa.

Opening with an eerie tone, we first see a random woman seeking out the advice of DC’s most prominent mage, Madame Xanadu. In her last appearance in Justice League Dark, Madame Xanadu made what appeared to be a departure from the team, like many of the revolving-door characters before her.

Setting precedence over the rest of the issue, we see a new vision that doesn’t relate to the customer in question, but instead foretells of impending doom that will spread all across the DC Universe, complete with burning cities and disillusioned heroes muttering of things to come. That’s usually how these things go and, frankly, most readers welcome the chaos. These are super heroes, after all.

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Review ~ Trinity of Sin: Pandora

Trinity of Sin Combines Old Myths with New in Pandora
By David Rondinelli

3144808-pandora+01[1]DC’s newest universe-spanning event, Trinity War, gets started with prequel book Trinity of Sin: Pandora. Yes, that Pandora—the one who opened the wrong box. To DC’s credit, they do add some flesh to this heavily referenced myth. The story of Pandora is usually counted among other hero myths, so tying it to the new hero mythos that dominates most of the comic book industry is a marriage made for the pages.

Beginning with a primitive society in prehistoric Macedonia, a peaceful tribe introduces us to Pandora. She finds a golden skull with three eyes. When she holds said skull up to her face, we see hidden beneath her hood a third eye on her forehead. She releases the seven deadly sins, all mutated humanoids (it’s good to have something you can hack and slash at) that consider her their mother.

Emerald city 2012 - new 52.ppt

images[3]After being released into the world, the evils waste no time in making their presence known. They start by destroying Pandora’s village. A council of gods brings Pandora to the Rock of Eternity, where she is shackled with two other guilty parties who all bear some responsibility for the evil now inhabiting the world. They are dubbed the “Trinity of Sin.”

Pandora is scarred on the face (more on this later) and sentenced to a life of immortality. From there, the issue follows her as she scours the globe in different ages to remedy the infection of the seven deadly sins.

phantomstrangerpandora658[1]After most of her pursuits end in brick walls, she begins to take other tactics. When Pandora finds herself in the middle of the Crusades in Antioch, she finally starts leaving behind some of her passive measures. After a chance encounter and some vicious name-calling from the immortal, tens-of-thousands-of-years-old supervillain Vandal Savage on the battlefield, Pandora starts to become more kick-ass; she takes up martial arts on Mount Song and gains knowledge of magic in Flensburg.

The latter half of the issue takes the reader to the present day, in which Pandora takes on Wrath, only to be transported into a dark alleyway. The god who condemned her at the beginning revisits her. He bears a familiar yellow lightening bolt on his chest, much like one worn by a certain big red super hero (Shazam).

The conclusion of the issue shows the god dying as he warns Pandora, “Only the power within can end the curse.” Pandora, daunted at returning to the box, concludes that she must find a power source strong enough to “purge this world of the seven spirits of sin.” A nice close-up shot of a giant red “S” lets fans know just where she’s going to find that kind of power.

Hailed as a “major turning point in The New 52,” I was amped up to hear that the Justice League, Justice League of America, and Justice League Dark would be going blow for blow in an all-out slugfest. Trinity War is being told in six issues spread across the various Justice League and tie-in titles.

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Although who will be paired up for this all-out super-rumble is yet to be determined from what is shown in the pages of Pandora, it does allude to a potentially epic story of the various Justice League teams going toe-to-toe with the seven deadly sins or possibly grappling with DC’s version of the mystery behind Pandora’s box.

In this case, the big foes will probably be from DC’s fall event, Forever Evil, touted as “the biggest shock of all” on the last page of Pandora. After all, what better time is there for a villain to take over than when just about every relevant character in the DC universe is fighting each other for reasons that we have yet to know? Despite whatever the dispute is about between the teams, one thing is certain—it’s going to be interesting to see what, exactly, make the teammates turn on each other.

Pandora’s story demonstrates some layers in this prequel issue, though I think she’s a bit of a rip-off of Zealot, one of Jim Lee’s earlier characters from his WildC.A.T.s series. The scars on the face are certainly familiar. However, helmed as the centerpiece of the series, Pandora is a character to watch out for. Regardless, I don’t think readers will need this first tie-in issue to follow the main story. Save your money for when the real war begins.

Review: Sword of Sorcery

By David Rondinelli

Authors: Christy Marx
Artists: Aaron Lopresti
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 2012-2013

swordofsorcery01After DC’s launch of the New 52 in 2011, they cancelled and added several titles in what were known as the first through fourth waves. Another series of cancellations took place in May 2013, including the ’70s throwback, Sword of Sorcery, vehicle for the revival of ’80s title, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld.

Younger generations may not know of Amethyst’s place in comics history. A staple character of the ’80s, Amy Winston, everyday teen and all-around girl next door, finds out that she is the long lost princess of an alternate dimension known simply as Gemworld. When she moves from Earth to Gemworld she gets a growth spurt, some short skirts, and magical powers. The character’s main villain was an overlord dressed in Renaissance clothing with a creepy moustache who went by the name Dark Opal.

Civil War seemed to be the underlying theme of the series, as many of the characters in Gemworld regularly fought to take control of the different “houses,” all of which were represented by a certain precious stone.

Amethyst received special treatment with a 12-issue maxi-series, a regular ongoing title, and a few specials and annuals. The character appeared to lose her sparkle as the ’90s rolled around, leaving her in limbo and eventually a footnote in DC’s history. Appearing here and there in some of the crossover events, she made a semi-comeback in The Secret Seven, which was a mini-series that tied into the Flashpoint story event that led to the New 52.

Sword of Sorcery was an even earlier anthology series that was first started by DC in the early ’70s and was mainly a platform for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, another title that slipped into obscurity. However, it is the perfect title to reintroduce the character to readers. This high fantasy series brings in a lot of nostalgia for the visually stunning films, books, and television series that were so relevant in the ’80s.

So what can readers make of the re-launch?

Well the title has already been cancelled, if that says anything about the public’s taste. However, the series was fortunate enough to make it to the end of its first story arc, allowing for some closure to Amy’s adventures as opposed to an abrupt ending.

What possibly could have gone wrong? Well for starters, what little story there is takes too long to get off the ground. Further, for the most part Amethyst’s mother makes a more compelling character than Amy/Amethyst. But what feels most disappointing is that Amethyst is a bit short on kick-ass action. It feels as if the creators of this book were under the impression that it would last longer, which might explain the large cast of characters and the slow learning pace that Amethyst takes to become a hero.

swordofsorcery02Writer Christy Marx, best known for her work writing such ’80s cartoons as Jem And The Holograms, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and G.I. Joe, and her original warrior-women comic Sisterhood of Steel, seemed like a great choice to take the reins on this series since she was such a big part of the ’80s fantasy boom herself.

The art is likewise redeemable, as artist Aaron Lopresti does a masterful job, with seizure-inducing bright colors that reflect the gem-themed world the characters populate.

The updated version of Amethyst makes a valiant effort at taking a more serious tone than the original incarnation. Amethyst’s human identity, Amy Winston, is aged from 13 to 17, “Gemworld” is replaced with the alien planet of “Nilaa,” and characters aren’t named after gems anymore. Further, Marx has posited the series as more of a coming-of-age story than a magical adventure, and the violence is ratcheted up considerably, which could all be seen as pros.

With a bright smile to match even brighter blond hair, Amethyst was essentially an archetype of the non-threateningly beautiful magical good girl, complete with winged horse (see also: She Ra, Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony). Gemworld, too, was a product of the ’80s, following the trope of characters being represented by simple, “girly” objects like colors (Rainbow Brite), desserts (Cherry Merry Muffin and Strawberry Shortcake), flowers (Rose Petal Place), etc.

However, the title just can’t seem to escape a sense of being stuck in the ’80s, which is perhaps why it was so quickly cancelled. She was born during the fantasy and adventure boom of the late ’70s and mid-’80s, and that is where she apparently belongs.

But if you can get past the slightly dated feel, Amethyst does have some good things going for it one being the strong female lead and another the introduction of Amethyst into the DC Universe (see her cool, if brief, appearance in Justice League Dark).

The series unfortunately features something many comic books suffer from, though—an insufferably slow buildup. Marx takes too many issues to introduce characters and get Amethyst into battle. Her warrior mother makes a much more immediate impression.

The latter issues of Sword of Sorcery really take a turn for the better with the introduction of villain Eclipso as a fugitive of Gemworld who was exiled to Earth. The occult anti-hero John Constantine tricks Amethyst into taking Eclipso back to Gemworld, culminating in an intense final fight well worth reading.

beowulfIt is clear that Amethyst is the character DC was looking to revive with Sword of Sorcery, as the other features in the title are utterly forgettable. I don’t even know what the new feature in the latter issues is, but toward the beginning of the run readers were introduced to an updated version of Beowulf. The best thing about this story was the very awesome “wolf” look of the title character. He could be DC’s answer to Wolverine if they could find a way to bring him into the modern fray.

If you’re a fan of Amethyst and want to read more, you can pick up her 600+ page Showcase Presents omnibus edition collecting most of her ’80s adventures. Readers interested in the updated version can still buy the individual digital issues from Comixology or pick up the collected edition, Sword and Sorcery Volume 1: Amethyst, slated to come out in September.

swordofsorcery03If you watch the DC Nation block of television programming on Cartoon Network, you can also catch an anime-inspired form of the character in what feels like a “too little too late” series of magical girl shorts where she takes to short sessions of butt-kicking in a video game-like world.

Still, considering that both the title of the comic and the main weapon used by characters and worlds therein is “sorcery,” the series seems to be lacking the magic that could cast a permanent spell on readers.

Recommended: Minimally, unless you are a die-hard fan of shiny things or the ’80s, for which it is then a diamond in the rough.

Review: Justice League Dark Volume 1: In the Dark

By David Rondinelli

Author: Peter Milligan
Artist: Mikel Janin
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: October 2012

JLD1Dominating my pile of comics over the last year, Justice League Dark (JLD) has been the must-buy book every month. Justice League Dark Volume 1 collects issues 1–6: readers are introduced the characters, watch the team form, and see them defeat their first enemy.

Surpassing some of DC’s other team titles, I first felt the effects of JLD when I saw an image of its first cover in a New 52 preview book. I even snagged extra copies of the preview so I could have multiple copies of the image. When the premier issue debuted in September 2011, I was hooked. Of DC’s New 52 reboot, some of the rewritten characters and histories have changed for the worse, but JLD packs punches with pinpoint precision. I read the first issue three times in a row, and then once more just to better absorb the art.

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Review: DC Universe Presents Volume 1: Deadman & Challengers of the Unknown

By David Rondinelli

Writers: Paul Jenkins and Dan Didio
Artists: Bernard Chang and Jerry Ordway
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: December 2012

dc-universe-presents-deadman-challengers-of-unknown-volume1-dccomics-new52-jenkins-didio-chang-ordway-sook[1]If ever there was proof of comic books taking a more adult-oriented turn with the storytelling, look no further than DC Universe Presents Volume 1: Deadman & Challengers of the Unknown.

Comics fans nostalgic for the metaphysical stories that first gained momentum in the late ’80s (think Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Mike Carey’s Lucifer) will enjoy the re-introduction of this ghostly character, part of the New 52.

The book starts with a brief recap of the murder of Boston Brand, an arrogant circus trapeze star who goes by the stage name Deadman. The story then quickly turns into a supernatural mind-warp. Summoned by a goddess known as Rama Kushna, Boston Brand is sent back into the world of the living as a ghost. As an act of penitence toward the higher powers, he’s charged with bringing balance back into the lives of the hopeless.

Deadman first caught my eye in Justice League Dark. I was so enthralled that it practically possessed me to seek out DC Universe Presents at my local comic shop. The first thing that struck me was the lack of conventional super hero action. On top of that, most of the story arc sees Deadman inhabiting the body an army veteran who’s lost his legs, which in theory doesn’t make for the most compelling action set-up.

Still, what it may lack in kicks and punches, it more than makes up for in substance. If readers enjoy exploring metaphysical questions on matters of God, salvation, and the afterlife, Deadman would sit nicely between works like Goethe’s Faust and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa.

The blend of urban fantasy and mystery also contribute to what makes this a compelling read. While sharing the body of a paraplegic, Deadman crosses paths with some very memorable characters and places. Whether taking a tour through Gotham City’s supernatural nightclubs or quite literally taking a ride with the devil on a rollercoaster, we are treated to writer Paul Jenkins’ views on questions plaguing humanity.

imagesCA07088ESome of the biggies include why bad things happen to good people (the answer being because they deserve it), and what human beings are to God (a failed experiment). The devil’s answers, straightforward and glib as they are, make the reader ponder if such cosmic forces can really be that simple. Either way, the devil, laid-back as always, doesn’t seem to be too concerned with the intellectual plight of humanity as much as he is in shedding light on the ulterior motives of goddess Rama. Most pressing of all, what is the meaning of life, especially through the eyes of someone who is already dead? The writers seemed to aim for the point that there are more questions than answers.

Reading Deadman as an exploration of these questions is really enjoyable. The fantasy elements used to tell the story are an unconventional break from your usual academic voice. Some butt-kicking scenes and horror elements, although not extreme, are also fun additions. For those who relish wondering about the meaning of life, it’s a fun way to explore this kind of soul-searching while combining it with superheroes.

The turns in the story took me down unexpected paths, allowing me to do some pondering of my own about where storytelling may be heading next in comics. Indeed, Deadman’s tale in DC Universe Presents aims at some new horizons. The fact that the devil is not out to get the lead character provides a bit of fresh ground in comic book storytelling.

As for the visuals, with his cohesive panels and tight angles, penciler Bernard Chang’s art is just as complex as the storytelling. Accolades are in order for the colorist (credited as “Blond”) as well, who weaves a gothic tapestry of Deadman’s signature white and red color scheme.

Where praise is in order for Deadman, however, it’s the opposite for the second feature in this book, Challengers of the Unknown.

STK462255.jpg.size-285_maxheight-285_square-true[1]The story follows a group of contestants on a new reality series (called Challengers of the Unknown) after their plane crashes. Writer Dan Didio takes a David Lynch-like approach to the story, hopping from setting to setting while straddling multiple realities.

Unfortunately, even Didio’s signature playful style can’t save this cliché-ridden mess. For starters, the characters are little more than shallow tropes: You have the nerdy genius, the trampy bombshell, cocky guy with too much testosterone, and the token minority character. There’s also a blonde girl named June Robbins who leads everyone into danger but, maddeningly, they continue to follow regardless.

Throw in a group of unexplained talismans, a possessed naked guy with a chewed-up face who likes to kill people with sharp objects, and you get a half-slaughtered cast of unmemorable characters. This team is an example of how some things can’t always be translated into a modern setting. The original team roster, created by the legendary Jack Kirby, was a non-super hero book that the publisher used to introduce or re-introduce new characters and then disperse them into other projects. It was also noted as an early influence for the Fantastic Four. Aside from footnote backstory and some nice covers, the comic’s only other interesting touch is the reality show/Lord of the Flies gimmick, but even that is better done in Marvel’s current title, Avengers Arena.

The jumbled plot, characters with no super powers, and predicable deaths makes this a B story that only feels at home in an anthology. Perhaps that was the intention, but with a final sentence that reads, “The End…for now,” one can’t help but think they should have stopped at half that thought.

All in all, Deadman anchors the volume and provides a real gift to readers, making this book worth picking up. Challengers of the Unknown, on the other hand, is about as high quality as the reality shows that provided its inspiration.

Recommended? Highly, if only for the Deadman story.