Hugh Likes Podcasts: Journey Into Misery

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Journey Into Misery
Hosted by Helena Hart and Keiran Shiach
Comics continuity can really suck.  With the  wrong writer, it can be a confounding mess that ruins favorite characters, and even in the best hands, it creates a barrier of entry for new readers.  But as media becomes more and more serialized, continuity becomes more and more omnipresent in entertainment.
Fortunately, The Journey Into Misery podcast is here to help.  Each episode, Keiran Shiach introduces a new character, event, or creator run of superhero comics to his cohost and partner Helena Hart.  In the wrong hands, this could come off as a dour, mans-plainy mess, hence the title, but the pair make every show a delight.
First of all the chemistry between the pair is immediately evident.  They each bring something to the podcast that makes it more than the sum of its parts.  Keiran’s breakneck descriptions are lightning-fast but still easy to follow.  He’s both patient and skilled at explaining some of the weirdest bits of DC and Marvel continuity.  And Helena’s enthusiasm and interest are infectious, elevating even the worst of comics concepts.  The pair has covered all sorts of topics from Batman: Knightfall and The Spider-Man Clone Sage to Runaways and Final Crisis.  They even did a delightful April Fools Day episode where they turned the tables and Helena explained the plot of one of her favorite bits of pop culture, Les Miserables.
Catching up on comics continuity can be a joyless, gate-keeping slog, but with podcasts like Journey Into Misery, you can still enjoy the ride.  Visit JIMPodcast.com or subscribe in your preferred podcatcher.

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Hugh Likes Comics: New Avengers

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New Avengers # 1
Written by Al Ewing
Drawn by Gerrardo Sandoval
Published by Marvel Comics
With almost an entire line of new comics coming out, Marvel probably has most of my immediate attention.  Particularly after the variety of neat stories that came out of Battleworld.  There are a lot of new ideas and re-imaginings to come, but one of the books I’m most excited about is New Avengers.
The interesting thing about the book is that by most marketing standards, it shouldn’t work.  It’s a superhero team made entirely of legacy heroes, supporting characters, and C-listers.  And that is why I really hope it succeeds.
Organized by mutant billionaire Roberto Da Costa (A. K. A. Sunspot,) the team consists of former Master of Evil/Thunderbolt Songbird, the newest White Tiger, Power Man Victor Alvarez (not Luke Cage,) Wiccan and Hulkling from the Young Avengers, and Squirrel Girl.  Hawkeye is also presented as a potential recruit.  Da Costa tells him he was ‘hoping for the other one.’  Squirrel Girl’s sidekick Tippy-toe is also a member.  Together they represent Avengers Idea Mechanics, a global problem-solving team.
The thing that really works about this team is that writer Al Ewing really understands the voices of these characters and gives them all a chance to interact naturally with each other.  The writing for everyone is very on-point, with Squirrel Girl attempting to reason with the bad guys and Wiccan and Hulkling showing characteristic empathy and concern.  The whole concept of Sunspot trying to solve crises by throwing misfit teen superheroes at them from his Pacific Island Fortress is ludicrous yet so entirely in keeping with the character that I’m completely sold.
The art is solid, but not without its nitpicks.  Sandoval’s designs have a delightfully energetic Saturday morning cartoon feel, with exaggerated features and not-quite proportional limbs.  Stylistic choices aside, a few of the characters feel a bit off model, and occasionally drawn from unusual angles.  Squirrel girl seems to be missing her tail, for instance.  He feels a bit uncomfortable with the characters, but his style is charming enough that I hope he either relaxes or makes the designs more his own as the series goes on.
New Avengers is a delightful new comic that brings back some of my favorite characters without relying too heavily on an encyclopedic backstory to enjoy the book.  It’s a great introduction, and I can’t wait to see where their adventures take them next.  New Avengers is available from Comixology, the Marvel app, or your local comics shop.

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Hugh Likes Comics: Starve

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Brian Wood, Danijel Zezelj, and Dave Stewart
Published by Image Comics
So I’ve been really thinking about cooking lately.  Not just how to cook, or where my food comes from, but the whole process, how something goes from a pile of disparate ingredients and becomes something else.  I’ve also been reading “Starve” by Brian Wood, Danijel Zezelj, and Dave Stewart.  Much like a fine meal, a comic that is more than the sum of its parts.
“Starve” is the story of runaway reality TV Chef Gavin Chruikshank.  After the collapse of the global economy and the ruin of his marriage, he disappeared into the wilds of Southeast Asia.  Three years later, the network comes looking for him, to force him to fulfill his season contract on a show that is very different than the one he originally began.  “Starve” is no longer a travel show, but a competition for the benefit of the 0.1%, still on top despite economic and environmental catastrophe.
Starve is a fun little near future drama, with Gavin fighting for the soul of Chefdom and the love of his daughter against his estranged wife and the rival who stepped into his shoes.  It’s politics, aside from F*CK THE 1%, are tough to pin down, but it is a joy to watch anarchic, barbarian chef Chruikshank work his magic.  He’s nasty, belligerent, and entirely too much fun.  He’s Hunter S. Thompson in a white jacket.  While he is a master chef, the comic aims to shock rather than hunger.  In the first issue, Gavin is asked to prepare a dog.  Rather than being horrified, as is the intention, he carves up a slice, narrating that people all over the world eat dog.
The art is moody and heavily inked, with dark, brooding figures even under blazing stage lights.  The washed out color palate further emphasizes the crushing blandness of the excess “Starve” represents.
If I had a complaint, it is I wish they would do more with Gavin’s sexuality.  This is hardly a romantic book, but so far, (three issues published at the time of writing) Gavin’s homosexuality has been raised as an important character trait, but never explored.  It’s simply treated like another vice, or another thing his ex-wife holds against him.  He has had some interaction with his male handler, but almost all of his important relationships are with women.
While it may not whet your appetite, “Starve” is far from slight.  Check it out on Comixology or in your local comics shop.

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Hugh Likes Comics: Toil and Trouble

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Toil and Trouble #1
Written by Mairghread Scott
Drawn by Kelly and Nichole Matthews
Published by Archaia
Shakespeare enjoys a peculiar place in the canon of English literature.  Both a foundational document and endlessly mutable, it is performed, reenacted, remixed, and endlessly reinterpreted.  Romeo and Juliet inspired the musical West Side Story.  King Lear was translated into Akira Kurosawa’s opus film Ran.  Recently, the tragedy of Hamlet was remixed into the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game-book, To Be or Not To Be.  Toil and Trouble takes up from Macbeth, focusing not on the Thane, but the Witches.
Structurally, it resembles the Tom Stoppard Play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which follows the two titular henchmen from before their introduction and up to their bumbling, offstage demise. (Spoiler alert for a four-hundred and a fifty year old play, respectively.)  The comic follows Smertae, one of the three witches, returning to Scotland after being banished.  The reason for her banishment is unclear, but seems to involve Macbeth.  Like the Stoppard play, the action of the original Shakespeare drifts around and through the dialog of the comic. In this first issue, the reader sees an expanded version of the opening scene.
In Scott’s version of events, the witches are agents of Fate, tasked with ensuring the continuity of Scottish royalty.  To accomplish this, they mean to strike down Macbeth in order to give Prince Malcolm a trial to ready him for the throne.  Smertae is against the plan, but reluctantly agrees.  We then follow the witches in their work cursing Macbeth’s camp, and in the battle the next day, where Smertae makes a decision that goes against fate.
I was drawn to this comic because I am a huge fan of the Scottish Play.  The plot is an interesting take, and I’m excited to see how it interacts with the original.  The writing is actually quite solid, and the dips into 17th Century language feel natural with the rest of the dialog.  The world building is the biggest break from the original, but I’m a sucker for the concept of a fading magical world, struggling in the face of onrushing modernity, and Scott absolutely nails this fantasy milieu.
What surprised me is the exceptional quality of the art.  The Matthewses style is absolutely gorgeous, and the designs, particularly of the three witches, are immediately eye-grabbing and carry a lot of the story’s weight.  The three represent Sea, Earth, and Sky. Smertae has crab-like spikes jutting from her body, and her sisters equally expressive of their elements.  The ‘acting’ of the characters is also very well done.  The meeting scene is wonderfully emotional without relying too heavily on the dialog to convey meaning, for example.  The art is helped by bright and detailed coloring and inventive layouts, such as the climactic battle splash page, which features small circular insets showing the effects of the witches curses in the epic clash.
“Toil and Trouble” is the first part of a series I can’t wait to read more of.  Find it on Comixolgy, or in the rack at your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Comics: Wayward

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Wayward Vol. 1: String Theory
Written by Jim Zub
Drawn by Steve Cummings
Published by Image Comics
Rori Lane isn’t your typical teenager.  The daughter of an Irish engineer and a Japanese seamstress, she moves to Japan to live with her mom after her dad ‘didn’t work out.’  Before she can settle in, she begins to have visions of glowing red thread, and is soon drawn in to the dangerous hidden world of the Yokai, or Japanese monsters.  But she isn’t on her own.  She makes friends with other mythological denizens: An energetic cat girl, a classmate laboring under a curse, and a mysterious homeless boy with untapped powers.
Cummings’s art is gorgeous, and dispenses with pop-culture cuteness.  The Yokai in this book are by turns tough, terrifying, and absolutely disgusting.  There are no fuzzy-wuzzy kitsune mascots, and the kappa have a taste for human flesh, not cucumbers.  The gore is a little brutal at times, but the grown-up monster designs do a great job of just how deep and dark the well they they’ve stumbled into is.
The detail in the art is quite appealing as well.  Having worked as a English as a Second Language teacher in Japan, I noticed lots of little details in the background art that made the Tokyo of the book come alive.
“Wayward” is one of those odd little books that is too adult for YA based on the fact that the teenaged characters act a little too realistically.  Rori is foul-mouthed and psychologically damaged in ways that would make Katness Everdeen crap her pants.  Her mother is loving, but busy and at times distant.  Rori’s real teenage problems fitting in to a new environment are a nice parallel to her supernatural adventures.  While too much for youngsters, this is an excellent, but serious fantasy adventure for older teens.  Parental discretion advised, of course.

Hugh Likes Comics: Usagi Yojimbo

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Usagi Yojimbo Omnibus Volume 1
Script and Art by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Usagi Yojimbo is kind of a difficult comic to classify in terms of age appropriateness.  As a samurai pulp, it is certainly the most accessible to a western audience of the comics I’ve discussed so far.  It lacks the gore and explicit content of “Lone Wolf and Cub,” and its setting is simpler than “Rurouni Kenshin’s” historical period.  At first glance, the cartoonish talking animal characters make it seem perfect for younger kids.  The first story in this collection even features a guest appearance by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  But there is something nonetheless unflinching in Sakai’s tales of the long-eared wandering swordsman that resonates with the stark realities of Japan’s Shogunate period.
Although this collection is labeled as “volume one,” this collection actually contains parts  eight through ten of the series, which is the point where Dark Horse began to publish the collected volumes.  Although a great deal of backstory is referenced at times, Sakai is very good at bringing the reader up to speed quickly, and I never felt lost.
Following Miyamoto Usagi as he wanders the countryside, the stories in his collection are picaresque adventures that flow organically, and build slowly upon one another.  They don’t reach a climax in this volume, but I am quite curious about where Usagi ends up.  These stories are by turns exciting, heartwarming, and sad, and they are filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for Japanese culture and traditions.  Even though he is of the Samurai class, Usagi’s humility and genuine desire to connect with other people allow him to enter a variety of stories, from a widow struggling to avenge her husband’s death on the gambler responsible to an exploration of traditional seaweed farming.
The varied nature of the stories is delightful, but parents might want to read through first, or read with their children to be able to answer some of the difficult issues sometimes raised by this comic.  One of the most moving, but also difficult to read stories in this collection is entitled “Noodles.”  The story of a mute soba seller and his performer/pickpocket companion, it deals with some very heavy subjects, including justice, or the lack thereof, the rights of the disabled, and capital punishment.  While the conclusion to that story is satisfying, it is the darkest point in the book, and it was hard for me to get through as an adult.
Sakai’s art is superlative.  His style is at once a blend of  Carl Barks and Goseki Kojima and something entirely his own, and it is breathtaking.  His attention to detail, and his deft depiction of samurai fighting that doesn’t dip into gory self-indulgence is wonderful, and keeps  the stories moving while lending them a timeless atmosphere.
Usagi Yojimbo is an excellent comic for readers new to the genre, or for anyone with an interest in Japanese culture.  You can find the first volume on Amazon, or at your local comics shop.

Hugh Likes Comics: Wolverine

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Written by Chris Claremont
Drawn by Frank Miller
Published by Marvel Comics

Love him or hate him, Wolverine is one of the most popular and exposed characters in Marvel’s stable of heroes.  And with the publisher set to kill him for a while, I thought it was time to take a look at the limited series that really cemented his character.
It’s easy to see why this comic was so groundbreaking.  Right off the bat, it establishes Wolverine as a much darker, more badass character than his taciturn, volatile persona on the X-Men.  This is Wolverine in his element, and that means hunting bears and fighting hordes of ninja.  After spending some time in the deep woods of Canada, Logan discovers that his letters to his girlfriend, Japanese dignitary Mariko Yashida have been returned unopened, and that she has left the US.  Wolverine follows her to back to Japan.  There, he discovers that her father, a presumed deceased crime lord, has returned, and that Mariko has been married to one of his lieutenants.
After being rolled by Yashida in a fight which would have killed him if not for his mutant powers, Logan is rescued by Yukio, a hedonistic assassin who is playing games of her own.
“Wolverine” is Claremont writing at the peak of his craft.  Unrestrained by the team dynamic and superhero tropes of the ongoing X-Men comic, he really digs down into Wolverine’s character.  This isn’t just four-color antics, but a rich, pulpy story about honor, appearances, and the nuances of a world shaded in gray.  And being drawn by a Frank Miller just coming into his own as an artist elevates the comic to a classic.
Delivering a gritty comic is harder than taking a cape and rolling in the mud for a little bit.  It’s something that has to be carefully structured.  The pieces all need to support each other in a way that the reader both can believe and doesn’t expect.  “Wolverine” delivers by revealing a deeper, darker world in the periphery of one the reader already knows.  It shows a midnight underworld hidden behind an upstanding daylight face.  And it does it beautifully.  Miller’s Japan is a labyrinth of towering yet indistinct skyscrapers, with scores of ninja hiding in every alley.  It echoes and reinforces the script beautifully.  Miller echoes seminal Japanese artist Goseki Kojima in this story of corruption hiding within the Yashida clan’s adherence to tradition, and one warrior willing to abandon all pretexts to expose the truth.
In graphic story telling, especially when a writer and an artist are both masters of their craft, the finished product can seem at odds with itself.  The words can be sharp and engaging.  The art can be beautiful, but they need to work together to properly tell a story like this.  Here, Claremont and Miller’s efforts are a synthesis that is greater than the whole of its parts.
The Wolverine is available from Amazon, Comixology, or your local comic shop.

Happy Marvel Day!

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In literary circles, June 16th is “Bloomsday,” this single day on which James Joyce’s beloved classic Ulysses takes place. Folks take the day to either honor or malign the author and his works. As a thinking person of Irish descent, I’ve made several attempts to conquer the novel, but never completed it.

This year, I’m going to neither praise nor condemn the man. Instead, I’m going to celebrate another significant numeral of 6/16.

In the Marvel comics universe, or rather multiverse, 616 is the number associated with the version of Earth where the stories take place. There are other Earths, where these characters don’t exist, or live radically different lives. Occasionally, readers get a glimpse of these ‘alternate’ realities, but for the most part, our heroes are the ones from Earth-616. So this year on 6/16, rather than celebrate a work I have a complicated history with, or an author who has his own complex history of achievements and failures, I’m going to watch “The Avengers” and enjoy some literary works that may not be as highbrow as Joyce, but still were a force for good in the world.

Captain America was a symbol of hope and encouragement in the darkest days of World War II. Even up until the present, he has served as a reminder of the greatest ideals of my country: Freedom, Equality, Tenacity and Acceptance. The X-Men are icons of the struggle civil rights in every community. Iron Man is a symbol of what we can achieve if we dream big enough and work hard enough, and also of the fact that no matter how high we fly, we can’t outrace our demons. And of course, Spider-Man is an example of the responsibility to use power for the benefit of others.

These characters might not breathe the same rarefied air as literary icon Leopold Bloom, but I learned more from their stories than I ever did from Joyce’s high-barred, punctuation-less tome. But I won’t admonish any literary fans from enjoying today as they see fit. But as for me? Pour me a glass beer, put “The Avengers” in the DVD player, and hand me my “Astonishing X-Men” collection, and make mine Marvel.

How are you celebrating today?


Hugh Likes Comics Classic: Nextwave: Agents of HATE

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Written by Warren Ellis

Drawn by Stuart Immonen

Published by Marvel Comics


2006’s “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” is the best super-hero comic nobody read. It’s a cynical, action-heavy book about washout super-heroes that will teach you to love again. The Nextwave Squad were going to be the elite Super-hero team of the Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort. (H.A.T.E.) Until, that is, they discovered that H.A.T.E. is a front for the Beyond Corporation, a rebranded terrorist organization interested in field testing bizarre weapons of mass destruction on American Soil. They go rogue, steal an experimental aircraft, and set to work stopping H.A.T.E.

“Nextwave” was a comic ahead of its time. A parody of Marvels greatest excesses, it recast five c-list heroes as scenery chewing, trench-coat wearing action stars with severe personality issues. At a time when Marvel was pitching overblown crossovers like “Civil War,” Ellis boiled it down, doing short, fun action movies in two issues. These story’s were thrilling, easily digestible, and more importantly, irreverent. In the main universe, Marvel’s heroes were making gritty choices and compromising their ethics fro security. Nextwave was kicking broccoli-based HR Robots until they exploded.

Immonen’s art, which is absolutely gorgeous, helps. It’s as bright and beautiful as story is darkly comedic. Every kick and explosion is delivered with aplomb. The characters all have a manic gleam in their eye and a middle finger thrust towards convention.

Even the editorial team was in on the joke, with a letter page written by a delusional mail-sorting machine. “Nextwave” even had its own theme song, with the lyrics printed in issue one, and an MP3 recorded by editor Nick Lowe’s band “Thunder Thighs.”

“Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E” was a sly, silly, chop-socky gem of a series, and it remains a cult favorite. You can pick it up in trade omnibus from your local shop, or in digital issues from Comixology.

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