Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Comic Review - Action Comics #1, Animal Man #1, Batwing #1, JLI #1.

As a guy who hasn’t read a D.C. Comic in his life, looking through the New 52 at the local comic book store was a little intimidating. There were so many names that I’d heard of - Superman, Green Arrow, Batgirl - and so many which were new to me - Swamp Thing, Static Shock, Animal Man - that it was hard to know where to begin. Wasn’t this, however, the scenario that D.C. had hoped to create with their relaunch? To draw in new readers? Armed with only what I knew from film adaptations and strange midnight detours on TV Tropes, I went over to the checkout and asked if they could point me in the direction of some good reads for a newbie.

I’d only read a few comic books before: I’d split my childhood pretty evenly between the old Sonic Comics, Beanos and Dandys. I’d only started reading superhero comics a few months ago, having wandered into Forbidden Planet on Free Comic Book Day and been handed copies of Spiderman, Captain America and Thor, and Baltimore/Criminal Macabre. They’d hooked me in enough that when I saw Marvel Platinum’s The Definitive Captain America (something I’ll be getting around to reviewing later), I’d picked it up and started reading. Convinced that I’d like to follow up a few more superheroes, the relaunch seemed like the perfect place to start.

Thanks to some rather helpful advice, I picked up a quartet of books, dropping just under £10 for four very different styles of books. Both please and nervous about just what I’d let myself in for, I left with copies of Action Comics, Animal Man, Batwing and Justice League International tucked away in a black carrier bag, as well as a schedule of release for the rest of the New 52, so I’d know the dates for any others I might want to pick up.

So what did I think, now I’ve had a chance to read them a read a few times over? Well, let’s start off with Action Comics #1...

Action Comics #1.
Story: Grant Morrison.
Penciller: Rags Morales.
Inker: Rick Bryant.

I picked this one up because it was the closest to what I’d consider D.C.’s ‘big three’ (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) I could see: Detective Comics, which I’m very reliably informed featured Batman, was out of stock, and Wonder Woman, which I’m definitely interested in reading, doesn’t come out for a few weeks. I’ve heard great things about Grant Morrison’s writing, so this seemed like a good combination.

The story begins with Superman crashing the party of one Mr. Glenmorgan, where he beats up the man’s goons and has him held over a balcony by the time the Metropolis police arrive. Dropping him over the edge when he refuses to confess but ultimately catching him before he hit’s the pavement, Superman gets his confession before fleeing the police, who order on a radio to ‘activate the city’. Here, we learn that Lex Luthor has set traps for Superman in Galileo Square involving civilians, on orders to deliver him before 8pm. Superman quickly saves the civilians, giving the police enough time to deploy tanks and try trap Superman in an electric net. This angers Superman, who destroys a tank with a wrecking ball before being blasted. Before the tanks can finish the job, however, the civilians put themselves between the machines and Superman, giving our hero time to escape and change into Clark Kent. Clark then phones Jimmy Olsen, who is with Lois Lane on the subway stalking one of Glenmorgan’s men. Superman learns of a bomb threat on the train that Jimmy and Lois are on and moves to try stop it, warning Jimmy too late to stay off the train.

This was NOT the Superman I was expecting it to be. Perhaps I’ve been sold wrongly on what the character is about, but this seemed like an unpolished hero, one who knows what he stands for but doesn’t know how to go about it. One thing that was particularly enjoyable was seeing Superman when he was light-hearted, enjoying using his powers; a good number of which were demonstrated. The standout moments of the comic was Lex Luthor, who spent the entire thing casually sipping away at an energy drink while watching the destruction he rained down on Metropolis. It was so casual and callous that it was hard not to love him, and it put him at the polar opposite to what we saw Superman standing for.

The artwork felt very traditional, serving as an excellent way to ease many new readers (who will no doubt pick this up, like me, because of the Superman name) into D.C.’s world. When I first decided to start reading comic books, this is the sort of thing I thought I’d see a lot of. This is not true for all the books here, as we will see. The one thing which stood out about the art was that the now-youthful Clark Kent, with his shaggy black hair and round glasses, looked a lot like Harry Potter sans lightning scar. Strangely this worked for me, as it was not obvious that Superman was Clark, and vice versa.

While not as good as I was expecting, I did like seeing Superman using his powers, as well as the rivalry that has been set up between him and Lois Lane, who is now a reporter for a rival newspaper. I also really enjoyed how casual Lex Luthor was, giving him an air that he didn’t care how evil his actions were because what he was doing was, in his eyes, right. I’ll give this another chance to see how the story progresses, but it’s unlikely that Action Comics will be a regular purchase for me.

Animal Man #1.
Story: Jeff Lemire.
Penciller: Travel Foreman.
Inker: Dan Green.

Told by a man behind the comic book store counter that Animal Man was one of the darker comics brought out this week, I decided to pick it up to contrast the more upbeat-looking Action Comics and Justice League International. I’m incredibly grateful to that member of staff, as he pointed me in the direction of a fantastic read.

Buddy Baker, who possesses the ability to take on the properties of any animal, is a very relatable hero. The issue begins with an interview between ‘The Believer’ and Buddy, who has put his role as ‘Animal Man’ on hold in order to shoot a film. From there, we jump to Buddy at home, reading the same interview and dealing with family life. When his son tells him about a hostage situation at the local hospital, Buddy is reluctant to help, but his wife Ellen encourages him to go. Arriving at the hospital, Buddy tries to reason with the hostage taker, who recently lost his daughter to cancer, before being forced to use his powers to stop him. It seems that not all is well, however, as Buddy’s eyes seem to bleed momentarily, though the hero decides it would be best to sleep it off…

This issue introduces new readers to the character of Buddy very well, with the interview filling in any back story which is needed while the rest of the comic develops the relationship between him and his family: while Buddy does his best to put his family first, his wife would much rather he spent some time as Animal Man if it means that he was happier. He also finds himself having to turn down his daughter’s request for a real pet, as it will affect his powers, as well as his son’s eagerness to go film his father superhero exploits. It’s a very real set of relationships, making Buddy a relatable character.

My only real criticism of the book is the artwork. While it definitely worked as the comic took a left turn into the weird-as-hell during the last half-dozen pages, I didn’t particularly like it at the beginning, and actually found it jarring with the home life we see. Regardless, it didn’t limit my enjoyment of the book, just threw me. I guess it was so different to Action Comics, and what I later read in Batwing and Justice League International, that it threw me off kilter. If it grows on me, great! If not, let’s hope the writing can keep to as high a standard as it is here.

Regardless, of that one criticism, Animal Man was a terrific read. The character was well-developed for a newcomer and entirely likable. The ending few pages, when Buddy start to dream, were complete standouts, and the cliffhanger really hooked me enough to make me want to carry on reading. I’ll be picking up Animal Man #2 when it comes out.

Batwing #1.
Writer: Judd Winick.
Art: Ben Oliver.
Colours: Brian Reber.

I remember reading a little while ago about Batwing: I can’t remember the details, but I’m sure it was news of D.C. showing off his armour and wings which had found its way onto one of the websites I regularly frequent. It was this which jumped into my mind when I saw Batwing #1 displayed on the shelf in between Batgirl and Green Arrow. This was a more spur-of-the-moment purchase than any of the others (and that’s saying a lot), as I was going to take a copy of Green Arrow before changing my mind at the last second.

This felt like an origin story, more so than the other three. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it begins with Batwing fighting the bloody villain Massacre, who is trying to murder a (literal) busload of civilians. It is from there that we flash back to some time before, where Batman is helping David Zavimbe, who works with the Tinasha Police Department, to build a mythos around his new superhero Batwing. Following a string of gruesome murders, we discover that a retired superhero has been killed, leading to new questions which build until the comic’s gripping climax.

Batwing was easily my favourite comic. David Zavimbe was a guy trying to do good in a place where criminals rule - not dissimilar to Gotham - but with a police force in the pockets of the rich: evidence in David’s conversation with Kia Okuru, a fellow police officer, about taking bribes. What little we saw of Batwing made him seem like a capable hero, albeit one still learning how to translate the ideas of Batman Inc. for Africa.

The artwork seemed to me to be more digital than the other three (which would explain why Ben Oliver is credited for his ‘art’ rather than a ‘penciller’), and it really helped to strike the grittier tone that Batwing seems to be striving for. At no point did it get in the way of the action, and there were some lovely retained moments, such as Batwing and Batman attacking a jeep, and the look of Massacre.

Batwing #1 was a fantastic read which travelled at a good pace, setting up the characters and ending on a point which really made you want to know more. Like Animal Man, I’ll be buying issue 2 as soon as it’s available.

Justice League International #1.
Writer: Dan Jurgens.
Pencil Art: Aaron Lopresti.
Ink Art: Matt Ryan.

Ah, Justice League International, what a confusing relationship I now have with you. Originally picked up because I wanted to see a team of superheroes, this issue is one I’ve been mulling over in my mind for quite a long time. This review, especially the plot synopsis, will be more in-depth than the one above, because, while there are few things that would really count as spoilers here, a lot did happen in this issue.

Justice Leag- Screwing it, I’m writing JLI from now on! JLI begins with Andre Briggs, head on UN Intelligence, meeting with representatives of Russia, England and China to discuss assembling a superhero team to respond to international threats. They suggest various superheroes to recruit, eventually settling on a team with Booster Gold at its head as he will be easy to control. As a protest outside the Hall of Justice takes place, we see a UN research team swallowed whole as the earth opens beneath them. Meanwhile, Booster Gold is called to the Hall of Justice, believing he is there to join the main Justice League. Instead, he is introduced to the team he will be leading. Guy Gardner, a Green Lantern, disapproves on the situation and leaves, only to be confronted by Batman, who urges him to trust in Booster Gold’s skill. As the team is sent off to investigate the disappearance of the research team, with Batman in tow for good measure, we see a group of protestors attack the Hall of Justice…

This issue definitely felt like the first of a two-part story. The same can be said of Action Comics #1, but here we got to see virtually none of the superhero’s powers in action, instead just getting teasers of them. Some were painfully obvious: Guy Gardner has the powers of a Green Lantern, Tora ‘Ice’ Olafsdotter can summon Ice, and Batman is… Well, Batman! However, I had to visit wikipedia to find out what Dora ‘Godiva’ Leigh’s and Zhifu ‘August General in Iron’ Fang’s powers were. Booster Gold’s powers were, again, shown, but we didn’t get them explained to us - he shot what looked like energy blasts and we saw him fly, but according to various wiki he can do much more. A page with each member of the team explaining their powers to each other would have been nice for new readers - Booster himself tells Andre that he doesn’t know what half his team can do. Fingers crossed that next week, with the monster that appeared at the end, the team will show off their powers to the readers.

That said, I did like the conversations between some of the characters, in particular when the members of the JLI were being chosen: the Russian ambassador saying Plastic Man was “too whacko” and another commentator saying of Batman that “the idea was a team we could control” made me laugh out loud, and a lot of the character interactions were great to read, with the rivalry between the Russian hero Rocket Red and the Chinese armour-clan Iron General in August giving the writer a chance to flesh out the team’s relationship.

The artwork was nice and colourful, rather like Action Comics, and each character had their own distinctive look. Occasionally eyes were left completely white, but this was often because the characters were too far back in the frame to allow Lopresti and Ryan to fill them in. Otherwise, the art here was great for drawing the reader in.

While I do give JLI marks for filling in a hell of a lot of story into what was a very small space, I was a little disappointed that I picked this up expecting to see a team using their powers and didn’t really see much of it until the last 3-4 pages. I also like the concept of a superhero team working under government authority, though whether D.C. have done this before I couldn't say. Like Action Comics, I’ll give this another week to hook me in, but if not I doubt I’ll continue reading.

Closing Remarks.

While I’ll be picking up all of the second issues here, Action Comics and JLI will need to go something awesome to keep me on board. However, Animal Man and Batwing both did really great jobs at setting up their heroes and making me want to read more. I have a few more comics I want to get my hands on (I heard great things about Batgirl, and I want to read Teen Titans, Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey when they come out), but so far I’m very happy with my foray into D.C.

Also, I saw the red hooded woman… That also has me intrigued, though I’m in no fit state to speculate.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Theatre Review - Much Ado About Nothing.

Performance Date: 11th August 2011.
Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre, London.

Script by: William Shakespeare.
Directed by: Josie Rourke.
Starring: David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Adam James, Tom Bateman, Jonathan Coy, Elliot Levey, Sarah Macrae.

The eighties may be the current go-to decade for a nice fat slice of depression, but it’s nice to see the party atmosphere of those ten years embraced in Rourke’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

For those who don’t know the story, the action picks up with the return of Don Pedro (Adam James) from a victorious battle, alongside Benedict (David Tennant) and Claudio (Tom Bateman). Upon their arrival, Claudio plans to marry Hero (Sarah Macrae), daughter of Leonato (Jonathan Coy), and Benedick is reunited with his verbal jousting partner, Beatrice (Catherine Tate). With some help from Don Pedro, Claudio and Hero are soon betrothed to one another, and amongst the wedding preparations, it is planned that Benedick and Beatrice will be forced into realising their love for each other. Of course, this being Shakespeare, all is not destined to go to plan, as the “plain-dealing” Don John (Elliot Levey) schemes to break up Claudio and Hero.

The action takes place atop a giant turntable, complete with four movable pillars and numerous pieces of set dressing (such as chairs, DJ decks, etc) brought on and off when scenes demanded them. The sheer number of different positions that the pillars are placed in to create the necessary locations are astounding, and the revolving stage means that set changes can be performed with minimal effort, as well as perform small sequences of action while the turntable rotates into place. This turntable is also used to great effect in Act 2 Scene 3, where Benedick ‘eavesdrops’ on Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio’s conversation, adding both depth to the stage as well as the illusion that the three are chasing Benedick through a much bigger space than they actually are. It is because of this unique staging, combined with the eighties tone, that the play has a real sense of atmosphere and setting.

Tennant and Tate share excellent chemistry on stage, playing their characters as two old friends who are perfectly comfortable insulting each other while at the same time knowing they won’t cause any great offence to each other - everyone knows a pair of friends like this, making their relationship something real and relatable to the audience. Tennant, who has shown his comedic side in both Doctor Who and previous stage production Hamlet, really turns the humour up to eleven, and though Tate does on occasion fall back on traits from characters in her own TV sketch show, she is enough at home in this world to make the character of Beatrice her own, and capable of turning from hilarious to tense during Act 4 Scene 1. Of the other performances, the one which stands out is Adam James’ Don Pedro, who really brings the character to life, in particular when interacting with Bateman. He is a joy to watch, as are the rest of the cast, including those taking up smaller roles such as Dogberry and Borachio, as played by John Ramm and Alex Beckett respectively.

Finally, it is worth taking note of Michael Bruce’s score. The music used within scenes is distinctive of the period setting, often sampling from well known eighties pop, yet still feels fresh and original. This makes a striking contrast to that found during scene changes, which is often more tranquil and fitting to the action the audience has just seen. It is a treat for the ears, and shows just how important music is for helping set the correct atmosphere for a production.

In short, Much Ado About Nothing is a triumphant, well-performed piece of theatre that is well worth seeing - provided you can afford the hefty ticket price, that is! The cast work in great harmony, and the entire show is a tightly-run production.

Rating: 9/10.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Itchy Liverpool Articles and Reviews.

Hey all,

As you may or may not know (most likely the latter), I have written a handful of articles and reviews for Itchy Liverpool, an online magazine focused on the city where I studied my degree. Recently, I had a review of Arrietty published - far more abridged than the one found here, but covering many of the same points. My reviews have all been kindly edited by the staff at Itchy Liverpool, and you can check them out by clicking the links below.

Hope you enjoy reading them, and that you spread the word about an excellent and funny website. They also have branches based in other cities around the UK, so check them out if Liverpool isn't your closest.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Film Review - Arrietty.

Year: 2010.
Studio: Studio Ghibli.
Language: English.

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Mark Strong, Olivia Colman, Geraldine McEwan.

It's difficult to not love Studio Ghibli film. From the magical bathhouse of Spirited Away to the Cat Kingdom of The Cat Returns, to the windswept city of Kiki's Delivery Service. However, it's safe to say a number of their films are far from child-friendly: Princess Mononoke is surprisingly violent for a PG film, and Grave of the Fireflies holds a reputation to sending people into a deep depression. The company's last UK theatrical release, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is by far their more child-focused film, and this year’s work, Arrietty, seems to find the right balance between children and adults, making for a truly excellent family film.

The story, based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers novels, follows the Clock family's only daughter Arrietty, who lives with her father Pod and mother Homily underneath the floorboards on an old house. There, they borrow small items such as sugar cubes and tissues which the human residents will not notice are missing. When a boy named Shō comes to the house to rest before an operation, Arrietty is spotted by him. Raised to believe that humans are dangerous, Arrietty finds herself torn between her home life and the strange human who insists on befriending her.

The key to Arrietty's success is the portrayal of its eponymous heroine. Studio Ghibli's films are ripe with effective female leads, such as Chihiro (Spirited Away) and Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). Arrietty stands among the best of them. A curious, excitable teenager, she understands the lessons taught to her by Pod, yet is also willing to act on her own initiative: when she sees a pair of rats on her first borrowing trip with her father, she tells him that she could defend herself using a newly-obtained safety pin in place of a sword. Pod cautions her, however, that it is often better to avoid looking for trouble than go looking for it. This lesson is put to the test as Arrietty interacts with the dogged Shō, who represents the dangers of humans for the Borrowers and yet is also the most frail of them. Saoirse Ronan does a fantastic job at bringing her to life, capturing the hesitant inquisitiveness that defines her.

It's not just Arrietty who is well-developed: the entire Clock family is well-rounded, giving a genuine sense that the family is united not only by love, but by being, as they believe, the last Borrowers in the world. Pod is accepting of his daughter's curiosity while at the same time trying to reign her in and make her the skilled Borrower they needs her to be, while Homily is protective to the point of overbearing, but cares for her family and wants them all to be safe in what is a dangerous world. This is helped by Mark Strong, who's calm performance as Pod makes him both kindly and intimidating when angry with Arrietty. Olivia Colman's Homily is suitably motherly, which makes it disappointed when the script gives her little to do but shriek and faint as the third act arrives.

Of course, Studio Ghibli films are renowned for their high-quality animation, and their latest offering is no different. After last year's Ponyo, it is nice to see a return to a more traditional animation style. The visuals of Arrietty are striking, with some great use of household objects as methods of transportation: crooked nails serve as walkways and cables as climbing ropes, which the scenes in the garden are filled with insects and animals which seem looming and alien when seen from the viewpoint of the miniscule Borrowers. Of course, the world changes to something more familiar when while with Shō and the other humans, and it's great fun to try spot the route that Arrietty and Pod have taken on their outings during these scenes.

The remaining voice actors are definitely a mixed bag, with Geraldine McEwan giving a fantastic performance as the housekeeper Haru. While Phyllida Law does well as Sadako, there is simply not enough of her to make her memorable. Unfortunately, it is Tom Holland's vocal work as Shō which serves as the weak link in the casting, giving a monotonous and often grating performance. It is easy to see why he played the boy in such a way, especially as you learn more about his illness, but it can still be painful to listen to.

Regardless, Holland's performance is far from a reason to avoid the English dub, which is otherwise solidly scripted and performed, underlined by a fantastic score Cécile Corbel. While the film is not going to reinvent the anime landscape, it is a simply gorgeous film with a bittersweet ending, albeit one that is a little too open-ended for some.

Rating: 7/10.
If you liked this, you might like:  Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro.

Thursday, 4 August 2011


Hello, and welcome to Manafiend Presents, a blog dedicated to reviews and articles about all things culture. Here, you'll find opinions on everything, from computer games to the stage, and everything inbetween.* I'm Chris, aka Manafiend, the blog author.

The name Manafiend Presents comes from my xbox360 gamertag, manafiend, and that this blog is a presentation of my work. I've taken to using my gamertag everywhere I can online, including twitter and my Steam account. If you see manafiend somewhere, chance is that it's me!

The aim of this blog is to write light-hearted, funny features to spark discussion on a wide range of topics. For now, everything uses a written format, but I hope to branch out into Vlogging some day, so keep your eyes peeled. All comments are welcome, and can be left at the bottom of an article, though I request that they be well-mannered and that any criticism be kept constructive. Any trolling or inappropriate behaviour will result in the comment being removed.

So, with that in mind, hope you all enjoy reading, and come back for more.

* Your definition of 'everything' may vary... Considerably!