Speech Bubbles: Comics & Graphic Novels Comic Fan Talk About Comic Books! http://www.lunch.com/RealityInked <![CDATA[ "Will You Row As Free Man With Amra?"]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product’s advertising: “Conan finds himself chained on a galley ship manned by some of the Black Corsairs he once sailed with in his youth! If he’s to reach Stygia and recover the magical jewel he needs to regain his throne, he’ll have to lead a slave uprising and reclaim his old title: Amra the Lion!”
 
As the story opens, the elder King Conan continues recounting his tale to Pramis, his scribe – a narrative device that basically used thus far to move the story from reflection to action inside Dark Horse’s pages.  On that score, THE CONQUEROR marches onward, giving Timothy Truman that chance to continue this adaptation as well as granting Tomas Giorello, Jose Villarrubia, and Richard Starkings to ply their wares in the graphic department.  These pages recount Conan’s trip on the sea – the panels are shaped with a kind of seaworthy desolation with the singular Cimmerian sweating it out under the son secretly surrendering to his ill-fated decision.
 
But as often is the case in any Conan adventure the Fates aren’t done with him yet, and he finds himself soon at the mercy of another potential master, a circumstance every reader knows the strongman will right swiftly.  He does, and his efforts strike a relatively convenient bell with those who served with him previously.  The action gets hot, heavy, and harrowing (for those on the losing end of his sword), and all that gets accomplished in this issue is that the barbarian shows readers once more why he’s the master of his own destiny perhaps better than anyone else from the Hyborian Age.
 
Truman and his team build reliably on the narrative laid down in the first installment, dishing out much of the same in terms of tone, look, and style.  Thus far, a surprising amount of THE CONQUEROR relies heavily on past events – i.e. the elder Conan recounts this story to Pramis; the oarsmen recall Conan as ‘Amra the Lion’ whom they previously served; etc.  While there isn’t anything all that wrong with it, the developments here are pretty slim to really sink one’s teeth into.  Largely, pieces are moving about on a chess board, being put into place where they must be for the real tale to begin; in the meantime, enjoy the scenery, pretty much like you did with the last issue.
 
KING CONAN: THE CONQUEROR (Part 2 of 6) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Timothy Truman; the art is supplied by Tomas Giorello; the color artist is Jose Villarrubia; with lettering supplied by Richard Starkings & Comicraft; and the cover artists were Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia.  The work is an adaptation of a story written by Robert E. Howard.    The issue bears the cover price of $3.50, still a bargain so far as this reader is concerned.
 
RECOMMENDED.  Essentially, Issue 2 of THE CONQUEROR offers little development other than to return Conan to the prime post of adventurer leading the charge.  It ain’t a bad place to be; it’s just where you have to pass in order to get to what inevitably lies ahead.  Fairly routine outing.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of KING CONAN: THE CONQUEROR (Part 2 of 6) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ "A Man Must Earn the Right To Lead, Not Be Born To It."]]>  
Under the spotlight, KING CONAN: THE CONQUEROR starts out just fine … but it isn’t nearly as grand as it probably hoped to be.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the published advertising: “In the port city of Messantia, the deposed, fugitive Conan could uncover the key to regaining his throne—or he could get a knife in the back! Conan follows a lead to a lost relic, revisits an old friend, and finds that he’s not alone in his risky hunt for a missing, magical gem.”
 
For the uninitiated, “The Conqueror” is actually a continuation of a story – an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON – which began (in 2013) with Dark Horse’s six-part miniseries.  This new mini – dubbed “The Conqueror” – also promises six fun-filled issues with the singular Cimmerian typing up some of the previous arc’s dangling threads.  Adapting the work of a master like Howard apparently isn’t daunting enough as this creative team seeks to adapt an adventure that’s previously adapted before (in 1974 as well as serving as the inspiration for 1997’s Kull the Conqueror movie).
 
When adapting something as revered as Howard’s tale, it certainly stands to reason that Dark Horse would tap a creative team worthy of such challenge.  Scribe Timothy Truman has been in DH’s stable toiling away on Conan titles since the mid-2000’s.  As best as I’ve been able to find, artist Tomas Giorello has been working on various issues since 2010.  Between the two of them, there’s an appreciable measure of experience to build on, and, as such, one can hope for good synergy.
 
As the tale opens, King Conan sits with his royal scribe Pramis, who’s been tasked with preserving in writing the tales the elder ruler wants left for posterity, and the strongman begins exactly with where the action left off in the previous mini: the barbarian finds himself in Messantia requiring the aid of an old ally in finding the present whereabouts of a jewel known as the Heart of Ahriman.  Legend tells that Conan will need the gem in order to regain the throne.  It goes without saying that what appears an easy task will be far from it, and – before the issue closes – our hero will find himself in dire straits but on the dark path of an epic quest.
 
Indeed, Truman and Giorello seek to emulate the look of a classic tale, and much of THE CONQUEROR reminds me of pages I’ve happened across in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  They’ve gone a ways toward emulating those tales of old, but far too little happens by way of action to my liking.  The early pages work fine in establishing an epic tone for what follows, but let’s just say these aren’t Conan’s finest hours by way of standing his ground against what appears to be a lesser band of foes.  It’s an effective beginning – one that feels a bit too clinical and formulaic at times – though little else.
 
If the best is yet to come, the team will need to ratchet up the action and develop some intrigue in Issue 2 to make a believer out of me.
 
KING CONAN: THE CONQUEROR (Part 1 of 6) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Timothy Truman; the art is supplied by Tomas Giorello; the color artist is Jose Villarrubia; with lettering supplied by Richard Starkings & Comicraft; and the cover artists were Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia.  The work is an adaptation of a story written by Robert E. Howard.    The issue bears the cover price of $3.50, still a bargain so far as this reader is concerned.
 
RECOMMENDED.  A good start.  Nothing grand.  But good.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of KING CONAN: THE CONQUEROR (Part 1 of 6) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Crisp & Uninteresting THE STAR WARS Gave Birth To An Entertainment Legend?!?!]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product packaging: “This is the official adaptation of the original rough-draft screenplay by George Lucas for what would become Star Wars.  But this long-ago and faraway galaxy is unlike the one you’ve seen in the films.  Strap yourself in for high adventure and lazersword duels, Jedi Knights and Knights of the Sith, a familiar Princess Leia and a very different Han Solo, and a battle to defeat an evil Empire!”
 
Let me just say this right off the bat: thank GOD for rewrites!  Otherwise, if THE STAR WARS is any indication, it’s very unlikely that there would be a Star Wars franchise – the entertainment juggernaut that just keeps on giving to its billions of fans around the world.
 
Now, that said, don’t get me wrong: I’m probably as big a Star Wars fan that you’ll find anywhere.  I’ve seen all of the movies.  Read many of the books.  Followed both the original Marvel series as well as the Dark Horse properties.  Watched the TV shows.  Argue about its merits online.  Even enjoyed a good deal of the Prequel Trilogy, though I won’t split hairs on how it divided fandom.  But the bottom line is that inspiration needs proper cultivation, and THE STAR WARS – this unblemished look back at what could’ve been – is full of blemishes.


Obvious inspirations rise to the surface right away.  The work has a very Flash Gordon feel to it – there’s a big universe out there, but much of it seems to revolve around a single world or two, those being managed by Lucas’s version of Ming the Merciless (aka Darth Vader).  The Jedi clearly draw similarities to Samurai warriors.  And those opening panels have a very Western feel with the heroes being stuck out on the Wild Frontier.  The bad guys show up with intent to do some bad things, and that brings our General Skywalker out of retirement, setting the whole tale into galactic motion.
 
However, it’s rare to find so many flat and dimensionless characters in anything other than two-D, but that’s what so very much of THE STAR WARS is: one heavy struggling for screen (or panel) time against the others.  Vader’s basically a charmless thug; Yoga’s a fat guy with warts and pointed ears; and these castles and rooms look far too Earthly for me to accept them as anything other than belonging to this world.
 
Thankfully, it doesn’t take long before Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio to show up and – as they did with the films – give this story some life beyond the ink and page.  They still end up second fiddle to a bunch of whiners who spout such heavy-handed gibberish about politics so much that I had to fight to turn the page.  (It isn’t hard to see the Prequel Trilogy in this creation; everything from the Original Trilogy outside of the obvious was still several rewrites away.)  In many ways, what plays out in these pages almost seems like some crackpot’s idea of what fanfic could be: take all of the elements of one cinema classic, stick it in a blender, and then pour it out in some new shape to see if it tastes the same.  Well, the ugly truth is here: it doesn’t.
 
It’s hard to believe that such a heart-warming tale as STAR WARS (A New Hope) came from anything so grim, forced, and humorless as THE STAR WARS.  Still, stranger things have happened.
 
THE STAR WARS is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The script is written by J.W. Rinzler; the art (which is quite inspired) is by Mike Mayhew; the colors are by Rain Beredo; the lettering is by Michael Heisler; and the Cover Art (which is pretty fabulous) is by Nick Runge.    For those of you who grew up on an island, STAR WARS is the creation of George Lucas.  There’s a terrific last chapter that fleshes out some of the peoples, places, and things that way an illustrated companion book should.  It comes with the cover price of $39.99, a bit steep for my tastes.
 
RECOMMENDED mostly as a curiosity than anything else.  Seeing the kinda/sorta how it all began is definitely an interesting exercise for fans of George Lucas’s legendary STAR WARS, but so much of THE STAR WARS feels incomplete, rushed, and (dare I say?) forgettable from a storytelling perspective.  There are obvious seeds of what was to come in here, but – by the time all is said and done – I found it hard to tell how much of that was due to Lucas’s eventual tinkering with his original script or scribe Rinzler trying to throw homage back to the Original Trilogy.  All I can say is, “Thank God this isn’t the version which made it to the silver screen!”
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE STAR WARS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Derailed SHADOWS Made Me Want To CRY]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product packaging: “Clone trooper Hock, left for dead by his Jedi leaders in the Clone Wars, now believes he has found a truly great warrior worthy of his loyalty – Darth Vader!”
 
I know full well that there’s a generation of men who grew up loving and practically worshipping monsters.  By monsters, I’m not talking about the usual politicians; rather I mean those fascinating Universal Studios versions of Frankenstein and Count Dracula and the Wolfman, even the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  By the time I met my childhood, I had cut my teeth on monsters having watched those movies on television; and, sadly, it seemed like true cinema monsters had taken a backseat to the more scholarly exploits of thinking underdogs like Woodward and Bernstein.  (Yes, you can thank the 1960’s for butchering films in favor of social consciousness.)
 
George Lucas’s STAR WARS thankfully brought back the monster in a big way, and – by ‘monster’ – I mean Darth fricking Vader.  Tall.  Menacing.  Resolute.  Could Force-choke the life out of you for just looking at him the wrong way.  Not a shred of human decency was left under those layers of leathery black armor, and audiences had a legitimate reason to ‘hiss’ at the big screen once more.
 
That’s where DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS excels.  It returns its audience to those fateful days when Vader was the ultimate bad-a$$ and deservedly so.  After all, the Prequel Trilogy showed us that it was Anakin Skywalker (aka Vader-in-training) who showed up and the Jedi Temple and made mince-meat out of daycare Padawan class, wasn’t it?  That’s a monster if ever there were, and scribe Tim Seidell gets great mileage out of showing us a galaxy far, far away in transition through the eyes of your average Clone Trooper.  Throughout those first three issues, CRY OF SHADOWS is nothing short of the same kind of brilliance not unlike those Universal Studios monsters I mentioned above.  It’s stark.  It’s uncompromising.  It’s determined.  It’s unstoppable.
 
Then – around Issue Four – it veers markedly to the Left (as in Liberal/Progressive), kinda/sorta transforming the tale into a vastly more personal story about space-man and the nature of evil, trying to recast our narrator as some closeted peacenik who maybe really didn’t mean to do all that killing he did after all.  It’s a stomach-churning moment for those of us who love great villains – not unlike learning that Hitler was a painter, though I’d still prefer lighting said canvas on fire and draping Mein Fuhrer in it.
 
Suddenly, the anti-hero Hock (our Trooper) decides maybe killing ain’t so grand.  He begins questioning his orders and those of the man-in-black he follows, putting an all-too-human face on the manufactured soldier.  While I can appreciate the sentiments, it just felt wildly out-of-place in a tale celebrating Star “Wars.”
 
CRY OF SHADOWS starts big, and it ends in one of those moments meant to be small and personable.  Instead, it just made me want to cry … and not in a good way.
 
STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Tim Siedell; the art is supplied by Gabriel Guzman; the colors are provided by Michael Atiyeh; the lettering is completed by Michael Heisler; and the cover art was done by Felipe Massafera.  For anyone who just made landfall from whatever island they’ve been living on, STAR WARS was created by George Lucas.  This volume collects a five-issue-series previously published in individual installments.  Lastly, it all comes for the cover price of $24.99 in standard Republic credits, and that’s still a bargain so far as this long-time SW reader is concerned.
 
RECOMMENDED.  What started out as a grand exploration of what I’ll term Clonehood from the mind of Tim Siedell ended up turning into some kind of Liberal grandstanding about the nature of conflict that, sadly, anyone who’s seen Oliver Stone’s Platoon already knows.  Sadly, three-and-one-half great issues get redefined (and reduced) by the last one-and-one-half, and can I just say?  The Empire deserved better.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Lukewarm & Predictable Morality Tale of the Civilized Versus the Uncivil]]>  
Today’s story: “Code of the Wolf” from August, 1989.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Our tale opens on a quiet farm in the lands bordering Aquilonia, but inside all is everything but quiet.  The farmer and his son have grown weary with being overrun by wolves.  After they fend off one attack with the domesticated dogs, our singular Cimmerian arrives with orders to take the family (and any others he may find) to the Ford at the River Ford.  There, all free people are being housed for an impending conflict with a war chief named Rejvald who has united several clans under one banner.
 
At the fort, several individuals have grown restless, much of which has been done by the outbursts of a brute named Crollus.  Crollus has grown weary waiting for the coming battle, so he’s taken to antagonizing anyone will listen all with the hope of getting them to abandon the place with him and make for calmer pastures.  One night, Crollus and his men manage to slay the fort’s captain, but before they can vanish into the night Conan orders them back into service under penalty of death.  They do what’s best for them and obey.
 
Eventually, the fort attacked, and Conan steps up to command the free people in the absence of the local militia.  Fearful of his every move, they follow his orders and manage to save themselves over the next few days.  Eventually, Rejvald realizes he’s facing a leader as strong and cunning as he is; left with little recourse, the commander challenges Conan to a battle-to-the-death in order to save both his forces and those at Conan’s command in the process.
 
Do I really need to tell you how it all works out?
 
“Code of the Wolf” is, at best, an average tale.  It’s far too civilized for my tastes with Conan kinda/sorta being a bit too much of a ‘man of the people’ even though there are passing observations by the free folk how the barbarian much more resembles the area’s wolves.  (FYI: wolves are a running metaphor throughout the piece.)  Dixon’s prose isn’t enough to make more of this parable of the civilized requiring the services of a wild man in order to survive, and the closing pages once Conan’s finally relieved of his duties by the arriving military pretty much return the free folks to their business while ending up looking like the less civilized after all.  It’s all far too obligatory, and it kinda/sorta feels like a bloated morality tale where the point was made up front more effectively than it was in the finish.
 
THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (#163) was originally published in August, 1989 by Marvel Comics; for those looking for a more recent version, one can be found as part of Dark Horse Comics stellar reprints, THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN – VOLUME 16.  The story is written by Charles Dixon with Gary Kwapisz; the pencils are by Gary Kwapisz; the inks are by Pat Redding; the lettering is by Diana Albers; with a cover done by Mark Caparosa.
 
RECOMMENDED.  It’s a good tale but nothing all that special.  Part of the problem is I thought the barbarian was too far removed from his element for too much of the tale, being tasked with defending the civilized folks in a fort plucked out of the days of America’s old west.  Plus, knowing that Rejvald’s days are numbered put this tale in the precarious position of trying to make more out of his chances than there ever was considering the force of nature (Conan) he was up against.  Not so much a misfire as it is a missed opportunity.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (#163) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Angers Flare, Armies Clash, & Conan Gets Some Appreciable 'Sexytime' in AVENGER #4]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the publicity materials: “In Shumballa, the capital of Kush, tensions are boiling over between the ruling Chagas and the ruled Gallahs.  Tanada, cruel sister of the king, has made Conan the captain of the royal guard, after he rescued her from a mob blaming her for the death of Amboola, a beloved army commander.  Yet Amboola’s true killer was an abomination summoned by a witch in service to Thuthmes, a nobleman conspiring against the king.  In vain, Agara, a witch hunter, pursues the witch, even as Thuthmes plants Diana, a slave, into the retinue of the king as a spy, threatening to unleash the abomination on her if she betrays him.”
 
The biggest difference from CONAN THE AVENGER #3 to #4 is brought on by a change in art duties: Brian Ching is out, and Eduardo Francisco.  This change always bring with it some alterations from one particular style to the other, and the most noticeable is Conan.  Ching’s Cimmerian I’d likened to a contemporary MMA-style fighter, mostly lean and more sinewy muscles than true bulk.  Although much of Francisco’s Conan is draped under his captain’s garb, what it visible (arms, chest shape, etc.) are larger.  While I may be making too much of this, I felt it worth mentioning because I noticed it right off.
 
Another significant transformation is that of Tanada.  Ching had been rendering the king’s sister as more of a regal waif – a Hyborean supermodel, thin and lithe like Conan – but with obvious striking similarity to the Cimmerian’s lost love, Belit.  Under Francisco’s styling, however, Tanada is a completely different person.  Her hair – formerly draped around her shoulders – is now pulled up in an almost Marge Simpson smokestack of dark, black curls.  She’s also gone from “appearing” of Caucasian heritage to black (not that there’s anything wrong with it).  Last but not least, she has much more muscle on her bones than she did in issue #3.
 
Storywise, “Shadows Over Kush, Part 4” ratchets up the class warfare between the Chagas and the Gallahs (as mentioned in the above summation) to the point where these people come to blows.  There’s a terrific bit of scenery allowing Conan to strut his stuff as a mover and shaker of men, and there’s even more opportunity to showcase his cunning with strategy in order to bring the altercation to a decisive end.  Late in the book, readers learn that Tanada and Conan have other uses for one another – something vastly more carnal in nature – though the Cimmerian admits he can’t quite shake Belit’s spell on him when he’s doing the nasty to Tanada’s delight.
 
In the end, this installment ends with a relatively predictable cliffhanger, one that shows perhaps Thuthmes’s machinations aren’t as clandestine as we’ve been lead to believe.
 
CONAN THE AVENGER (#4) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The issue is written by Fred Van Lente; the art is provided by Eduardo Francisco; the color are by Michael Atiyeh; the letters are by Richard Starkings & Comicraft; with cover art done by Fiona Staples.  Of course, Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard.  It comes with the cover price of $3.50, a bargain by any measure.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Aside from some change in the appearance of the characters (thanks to new artist Eduardo Francisco showing us his skills), CONAN THE AVENGER (#4) mostly builds on the circumstances put into play with issues 1-3.  To coin a phrase, the natives are restless; and even Conan himself surrenders to some momentary release after defending what serves as a king and a castle to this place.  Things appear to be heading for a climax soon, so I’ll be here in 30 days to see how it all shakes out.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN THE AVENGER (#4) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ I Spit On Your Grave! In Space!]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product packaging: “The peace John Carter brought to Helium and Thark is new and fragile.  On the eve of a Red & Green festival to balm age-old hatreds, Dejah Thoris is kidnapped.  The ordeal triggers her lingering nightmares of abuse and helplessness at the hands of brutal Tharks.  And the kidnapper is nightmare personified: Voro.  He caters to a taste some green men never lost: the red meat of Helium women.”
 
With DEJAH THORIS AND THE GREEN MEN OF MARS, it looks like Dynamite Entertainment has entirely given up the pretext of being anything like epic fantasy or golden age science fiction so far as this incarnation of the John Carter universe is concerned.  In fact, a reasonable person might conclude that this four-part tale bears a striking resemblance to epic exploitation fare more than anything else.  I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE immediately comes to mind, as do any number of ‘Women Behind Bars’ motion pictures of the 1970’s and 80’s.  I don’t say that to disparage the tale at all – in fact, I’m a bit of a fan of that whole exploitation genre of filmmaking; I do say it, though, not entirely expecting it from such a tentpole scifi figure as the Princess of Mars.
 
I can admire good storytelling, and scribe Mark Rahner – mining territory normally left to direct-to-DVD releases – certainly serves up a tale as captivating and the women as drawn in here.  Essentially, they’re clad in little more than scraps of fabric – along with the obligatory nipple clamps and cleverly-placed jewels.  (Heck, at this point, that’s half the fun of this title!)  As much as others might wish to rain on the parade of one man’s rape fantasy to the next, I suppose there’s nothing all that wrong with wanting a little S&M and T&A with your A&E.  That’s precisely what you get here.
 
Because it’s a Dejah Thoris story, John Carter really only appears as a happenstance.  He’s in there, but his involvement is trivial, something which may be adjusted according in the next installment as this is openly billed as Volume 1.
 
DEJAH THORIS AND THE GREEN MEN OF MARS – VOLUME 1: RED MEAT is published by Dynamite Entertainment.  The story is written by Mark Rahner; the art is provided by Lui Antonio; the colors are by Arison Aguiar; the lettering is done by Marshall Dillon; and the volume’s cover is by Jay Anacleto.  While Dejah Thoris and John Carter are the creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, these Dynamite comics are not authorized by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.
 
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  At this juncture, I suspect you more than I already know whether or not Dynamite Comics’ modern run on DEJAH THORIS is in your area of interest; and, if it is, then DEJAH THORIS AND THE GREEN MEN OF MARS is little more than more of the same.  That isn’t a bad thing – plenty of folks are buying it or, at least, enough to keep Dynamite churning them out.  But it’s amazing how far the title has come from the Walt Disney film, eh?
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I’ve repeatedly reached out to the fine folks at Dynamite Entertainment for the purposes of getting on their pre-release distribution list; however, they’ve thus far refused my every request for materials.  (So, yes, folks: that means I paid for this myself!)]]>
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<![CDATA[ "The Horned God" ... Or "How To Get Ahead In Royalty Without Really Trying"]]>  
Today’s story: “The Horned God” from July, 1989.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Our tale opens in the court of King Milrathus, a disinterested monarch more interested in watching captured insects do battle than he is in producing an heir.  Or could it be that his inability to produce a male child has forced him to pursue more trivial and mundane interests?  Whatever the case, Milrathus is not interested in siring one of his maidens today, and this forces those who would serve him to begin to question the future of their kingdom.  They know that should he not produce an heir that their lands will be taken from them upon his death and distributed amongst the remaining royal family; this more than anything else convinces them that they have to find some means with which to continue their majesty’s bloodline.
 
In the lands to the north, Conan has taken a position turning men into warriors when Lord Otradades and his aide royal aide Mengus realize they could use the warrior’s cunning on their quest.  They meet with the barbarian and explain that they are seeking ‘the horned god’ – more commonly known as a unicorn – in hopes that the powder made from its marrow will magically revitalize King Milrathus’s sexual prominence.  Joining them on this mission is the king’s sister, Princess Corialla, whom Conan believes will be a liability; as a young and voluptuous woman, she’s going to catch the eye of any wild thing they encounter.  Of course, she reminds the Cimmerian of his station, and the fellowship is set for their adventure.
 
They enter the realm of Hyborea and almost immediately find themselves prey for the local natives.  As Conan predicted, Corialla is about to become property of some manly beast when the barbarian instead puts his blade to better use.  The woman swoons to Conan’s side, and – later in the evening – she comes to the man and gives herself freely to him.
 
The next day, the search party nearly becomes victims to another advancing horde, but, as they spirit away, they finally sight ‘the horned god’ on a nearby mountaintop.  Thus, the race to capture the beast begins … but as is often the case in adventures of this sort success remains as elusive as possible!
 
“The Horned God” is the perfect Conan adventure.  Sure, it’s all about the quest at one point, but there’s so much more at play in the narrative.  There’s the business of royalty and the shenanigan of those allied to power trying to keep it; in the final pages, there’s even an attempt by others to usurp the throne for their own evil deeds.  There’s plenty of action, needless to say, and there’s the mythical beast – the unicorn – which serves as an inspiration for those seeking its magic for their own ends.  Add to that the prospect of romance for the barbarian and a princess, and I’m honestly not sure what more one could want from a tale of adventure.
 
THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (#162) was originally published in July, 1989 by Marvel Comics; for those looking for a more recent version, one can be found as part of Dark Horse Comics stellar reprints, THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN – VOLUME 16.  The story is written by Charles Dixon; the art is by Jorge Zaffino; the lettering is by Diana Albers; with a cover done by Dorian.
 
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  So very much of “The Horned God” actually feels like a terrific theatrical outing for the singular Cimmerian.  It’s a tale you can almost see playing out on the big or small screen, one that pits out hero on not so much an epic quest as it would be a relatively routine adventure for a man of his time, place, and stature.  Throw in the prospect for a little barbarian romance, and what more could you possibly need?
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (#162) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ "Call of the Howling Shadows" ... or "Three Men And A Lady"]]>  
First up: “Call of the Howling Shadows” from June, 1989.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Our tale opens with our fabled Cimmerian hearing the whispers of a lonely ghost through the darkness.  Pulling himself from bed he shares with two slumbering maidens, Conan finds himself face-to-face with the apparition of an even more tempting female – Shameel, whom he last saw when he left her in the Valley of Howling Shadows.  It would seem that she now requires rescue; and, unless the barbarian agrees to come to her rescue, she vows to haunt his every night for his rest of days.  Begrudgingly, he agrees, and she instructs him to seek out the Wizard of Carnolla in the Shamar Mountains for guidance.
 
As fate would have it, the Cimmerian is actually being manipulated the evil Master Zalix as the wizard needs a warrior’s cunning to help him recover a magical crystal that’s fallen into dark hands.  Zalix is using every spell he can conjure – including something resembling voodoo dolls – in order to accomplish his every wish, but his magic will not work against the myriad of foes they’ll encounter on their trip into the fabled valley.
 
Shortly, Conan arrives, and he leads Zalix along with another thief he’s conscripted (Batu) on their quest.  En route, the trio encounter one treacherous beast after another, a laundry-line complete with severed hands and feet, and some half-man-half-dog soldiers who’ve reduced men to slaves.  Eventually, they reach the ancient temple – the resting place of Hanuman, an even darker wizard – and make their way into its hallowed halls.
 
Inside, Conan and his companions find a civilization of insect creatures have captured and reduced the local people to servants, all of them living a life of servitude to a bloated human creature which gives birth to larvae that grow into more of the insect species.  It isn’t long before Conan hears the cries of Shameel and responds, hacking his way through a tribe of bugs depositing their eggs in her fresh body.  He rescues her, leading her to confess that she’s had nothing to do in crying out to him in the spirit world; thus Conan learns he has been duped by the wizard to do his bidding.  At this point, the Cimmerian confronts Zalix, who promises that if the barbarian can take him to the crystal then he will have the magic he needs to transport all of them away from this dark place.
 
Needless to say, it doesn’t go quite the way anyone plans!
 
In “Call of the Howling Shadows,” Conan is the consummate adventurer.  He’s wiling away his days enjoying the spoils of his lesser victories when a greater challenge presents itself.  Of course, he’ll respond, but in the process he’ll find himself accomplishing one challenge after the next in order to clear a path to a place which promises the prospect of not so much love as it is the removal of what he perceives to be a curse.  It’s a grand tale told at a swift pace, and it delivers the kind of fanciful finish one comes to expect from a tale told as only a barbarian could.
 
THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (#161) was originally published in June, 1989 by Marvel Comics; for those looking for a more recent version, one can be found as part of Dark Horse Comics stellar reprints, THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN – VOLUME 16.  The story is written by Charles Dixon; the pencils are by Gary Kwapisz; the inks are by Mark Pacella; the lettering is by Diana Albers; with a cover done by Ovi.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  In most respects, I firmly believe the folks who are going to seriously be jazzed by reliving THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (#161) are those who experienced it in its original run and now – much older – get the chance to relive a piece of reading from the younger days.  Me?  With as much as a fan I am of Conan’s wandering tales, this one worked just fine for me.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN THE BARBARIAN (#161) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Great Vampire Story Has An Awful Lot Of Derivative Elements To It]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
A Boeing 777 lands in New York City, bringing with it a horror that’s gone undiscovered for the better part of the last century.  It’s vampires – not the ordinary cape-wearing variety but undead, naked, lizard-tongued types – and they’re about to destroy civilization … unless an elderly pawnbroker and a team from the CDC can stop the carnage before it even begins!
 
What serves as a catalyst to set this story in motion (after the obligatory flashback set-ups) is an airliner lands in New York City and then loses contact with the tower.  Once aboard, investigators find what appears to be the dead bodies of a doomed flight with three exceptions (believed to be survivors).  The truth is something vastly more complex … but what I couldn’t help recognizing was that I’d seen this set-up before.  In fact, I’d seen it twice before, both times on the Fox television network – it was a narrative construct used for The X-Files and then again in the pilot episode for Fringe.  (Should I be all that surprised that the television version of this story is premiering only days away on the FX Network?!?!)
 
Now, I don’t want to feel like I’m picking on creator Guillermo del Toro.  The man certainly has a way of telling a story that’s unique; he has a strong command of visuals, and that’s probably why most of his work inspires so much of fandom.  I appreciate a visionary as much as the next person, but when you’re openly stealing ideas from your own previous exploits (such as the UV bombs featured in this story’s climax) maybe it’s time to hang it up until you have some other inspiration.  See, the movie BLADE II was directed by del Toro, and maybe he’s hoping folks don’t notice the similarities between elements introduced there and those in THE STRAIN.  UV bombs.  Vampires with these long, long tongues.  I noticed them.  I did – they practically jump off the page – and, while I won’t fault the man for re-using good ideas, I honestly expected greater ‘wow’ factor giving this property’s excessive TV build-up.
 
Still, I’m a sucker for a monster story.  On that level, THE STRAIN is a perfectly acceptable vehicle to get jazzed up about.  It has a kind of visual flourish here that feels right – plenty dark and hints of sensuality never feel out of place in the more Gothic scares – though perhaps it smacks of some obvious theatricality at times.  It’s worth a read, though I’d be suspect about where all of this can go that hasn’t been done before.
 
Therein lies my only real complaint with most of THE STRAIN: despite being a rather good modern-day vampire story, there’s an awful lot of it that feels like it’s been done before.  Besides the doomed airliner set-up, there’s very little to distinguish these characters from so, so many who have come before.  In fact, Syfy recently aired the first season of HELIX – a program involving some genetic virus in the Arctic – which featured a prominent scientist (played by Billy Campbell) who – lo and behold – had one failed marriage under his belt while coping with attractions from a prominent coworker; THE STRAIN’s main character is almost a carbon copy.
 
THE STRAIN: VOLUME 1 (HARDCOVER) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is adapted by David Lapham from creator Guillermo del Toro’s work; with illustrations and artwork provided by Mike Huddleston and Dan Jackson.  (The artwork does look very, very solid consistently through the tome.)
 
RECOMMENDED.  As a modern day vampire story, THE STRAIN works pretty well … even though there are huge parts of it that feel derivative of sights, sounds, and themes that have been explored elsewhere (even by Guillermo del Toro himself!).  I guess that’s not a bad thing; it just kept me from possibly enjoying the story more than I would have under better circumstances.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE STRAIN: VOLUME 1 (HARDCOVER) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ It's Good To Be The King ... Or Is It Now?]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the publicity materials: “Agara, a sorcerer who hunts witches, seeks the source of the occult deeds plaguing Shumballa, the capital of Kush, where two peoples, the ruling Chaga and the ruled Gallah, live in uneasy peace.  After initially mistaking the foreigner Conan for his quarry, the sorcerer enlists the Cimmerian’s aid in defeating a plague of undead.  Yet the witch behind the plague remains undetected.  He has used his black magic to murder the pregnant wife of Amboola, Gallah commander to Kush’s spearmen, and sacrified a child to give life to an otherworldly abomination, all for an unknown purpose in service of an unknown master.”
 
New characters and details emerge in CONAN THE AVENGER: SHADOWS OVER KUSH (PART 3) that start to flesh out both the world and the circumstances likely to trouble the Cimmerian in the coming days.  While magic certainly plays a major role, it becomes clear once and for all that the political shenanigans behind the scenes by those who would lay claim to the throne are never far off from the troubles of the Hyborian Age.  As agendas are revealed, our hero finds himself in the position of making yet one more decision regarding his current fate: should he stay aligned with Agara, or should he do (must he do) that which he has always done?
 
Scribe Fred Van Lente’s script begins to take on almost Shakespearean tones in this third issue, largely because the fate of kings is never far from tales of this nature.  Conan’s been a warrior as often as he’s been a thief, and his allegiances usually take the shape of whatever deed is necessary to one day get himself on his own throne.  Indeed, Conan himself can often been found vacillating between electing to lead versus electing to serve largely based on what rewards are greater: coin or companionship.  Much of the same plays out here, though I’ll admit I was a bit surprised with the choice he made so quickly with so little consideration.
 
However, a grand puppetmaster gets revealed: Thuthmes has his sights set on creating chaos that will serve to put Tanada – sister to the king – in dire straits.  By raising suspicion that her dalliances with black magic may’ve put the kingdom in jeopardy, Thuthmes seeks to have his station elevated.  Still, his endgame remains more than a bit elusive, and I think Van Lente is probably playing his cards close to his chest as well.
 
CONAN THE AVENGER (#3) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The issue is written by Fred Van Lente; the art is provided by Brian Ching; the color are by Michael Atiyeh; the letters are by Richard Starkings & Comicraft; with cover art done by Kilian Plunkett.  Of course, Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard.  It comes with the cover price of $3.50, a bargain by any measure.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  CONAN THE AVENGER (#3) builds yet another layer of intrigue over what’s come before.  While I thought the customary introductions of major players was out of the way, little did I know that there were a few more faces yet to surface – one as lovely and reminiscent of Conan’s fabled Belit and one with cunning to rival that of our famed warrior.  Those and a legendary monster figure prominently in an issue that presents Conan with a choice he may soon come to regret.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN THE AVENGER (#3) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ "I Think This Is The Beginning Of A Beautiful Friendship" (But With Vastly More Bloodshed)]]>  
How has CONAN THE AVENGER shaped up from issues #1 to #2?
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the publicity materials: “After the death of his pirate crew and his beloved Belit, Conan journeys alone to Shumballa, the inland capital of Kush.  In the shadow of its walled inner city, El Shebbeh, he drinks away his sorrows, only to wake up at the bottom of a garbage pit, his gear stolen and his body painted with tattoos.  No sooner has Conan recovered his boots than Agara, a witchhunter, attacks the Cimmerian, convinced he is the culprit behind the occult deeds plaguing the city, even as the true witch looks on …”
 
“Shadows of Kush, Part 2” adds quite nicely (and with terrific logic) over the events set into existence in Part 1.  As one would expect, the cliffhanger is resolved handily, and the two combatants find themselves as unlikely allies on a mission to expose whatever dark, sinister forces are at play in the region.  Needless to say, they don’t expose all of the answers to questions they’ve raised in these pages – essentially, their introductions are completed and how they might serve one another is only just introduced – but they’re well on their way toward understanding the strength in collaborating with instead of merely accommodating one another.
 
Scribe Fred Van Lente is certainly familiar with the Cimmerian, and he goes to great lengths to underscore just how Conan’s strengths as a fighter, a thief, and a colleague have been put to challenge by the events of late (and those occurring just before AVENGER came into being).  While the hero can’t entirely wash his hands over all he’s lost, he makes progress emotionally in the only way he ever truly knows how: by engaging in combat, by vanquishing his immediate enemies, by serving whatever cause might bring him the most (and best) coin.  Conan hasn’t healed – in fact, Van Lente shows us just how deeply he’s still ‘haunted’ by his lost love – but he’s no longer looking to bury his burdens under drink.
 
Likewise, artist Brian Ching serves up more of the same as what graced the pages of the inaugural issue.  As I mentioned there, his Conan is leaner and meaner – almost like some Hyborian Age MMA fighter, not so much the Schwarzenegger muscleman most commonly associated to the character – almost as if this is a younger barbarian still trying to find his way in the world.  But wherever there’s room for some zombified skeletons I’ve found great delight, and “Shadows” brings plenty of the Undead to be dispatched from the end of Conan’s blade.
 
Once our two heroes have suitably joined forces, Van Lente introduces a coda meant to show us that the forces of evil are still afoot.  Though the dastardly wizard may have dashed hopes for his initial plans, he’s still well on his way toward accomplishing a greater villainy, one that’ll no doubt require the strength and cunning of a noteworthy Cimmerian in the issues ahead.
 
CONAN THE AVENGER (#2) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The issue is written by Fred Van Lente; the art is provided by Brian Ching; the color are by Michael Atiyeh; the letters are by Richard Starkings & Comicraft; with cover art done by Kilian Plunkett.  Of course, Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard.  It comes with the cover price of $3.50, a bargain by any measure.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  A solid first entry gives way to much of the same in CONAN THE AVENGER (#2).  An unlikely partnership is forged in the heat of battle (against reanimated skeletons!); magic still exists in both the dark and light forms; and the barbarian remains under the curious spell of his dearly departed Belit.  Ala cinema’s Casablanca – but with vastly more bloodshed – “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN THE AVENGER (#2) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Solid Entry In An All-New Monthly CONAN Title from Dark Horse Comics]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the publicity materials: “Nursing his broken heart, Conan drinks himself into a stupor in the troubled city of Shumballa- until a brazen act of thievery launches the Cimmerian into a wild hunt and a supernatural adventure!”
 
This inaugural issue of CONAN THE AVENGER essentially serves to start an all-new storyline exploring the continuing adventures of the Cimmerian, and, on that level, “Shadows Over Kush, Part One” is a serviceable introduction to the people, places, and events that are likely to play prominently into the unfolding yarn.  To put the lead in context, Conan is still smarting from the loss of one of his great loves – the pirate queen Belit – and he finds himself drowning his sorrows in the local watering hole.  A few things go on in the background – the significance of which is hard to determine, possibly because this is all set-up – but by the time the next sunrise rolls around the barbarian will find himself the motivation to find himself once more thanks to locals who’ve treacherously underestimated who the man is and what he’s capable of.
 
Also, Fred Van Lente’s script presents a second storyline that parallels Conan’s plight, that of Commander Amboola.  The commander of Shumballa’s spearman, Amboola’s ire has been raised over the death of his wife caused by the demon she only recently brought into the world through childbirth.  The commander suspects that witchcraft at the hands of his king’s relations put his life on this path to ruin, and his anger will fuel a turn of events to himself that mirrors Conan’s dark spirits.
 
As a first issue, AVENGER works fairly routinely, setting Conan in a particular time, a particular place, all meant to service this tale and this alone.  Clearly, there are hints to his frame-of-mind and the events which transpired to deliver him to such a lowly state; however, the Cimmerian really only serves as a background character while necessary others are given more ‘screen time’ to put this new adventure into motion.  By half-way, it’s clear that AVENGER seeks to return Conan to prominence; all he needs is a catalyst which comes by way of those who seek to profit from his depression.  Needless to say, they’ll soon fear the monster they’ve awakened.
 
Artistically, AVENGER looks like the natural next evolution in much of what’s come before from Dark Horse circa the last two years (or so).  Brian Ching’s lines are bold and dynamic while Michael Atiyeh’s colors are necessarily somber for the mood of all involved.  There’s been a great synergy of art and story coming from the Horse’s mouth for some time – that hints at the controversy I mentioned in my opening paragraph; as much as others have somewhat dismissed it as being ineffective, I’ve quite warmed to the economy of visuals and language.
 
As one would expect, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, one that’ll undoubtedly be quickly resolved with the next issue.  I, for one, think it all could shape up very nicely in the months ahead.
 
CONAN THE AVENGER (#1) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The issue is written by Fred Van Lente; the art is provided by Brian Ching; the color are by Michael Atiyeh; the letters are by Richard Starkings & Comicraft; with cover art done by Iain McCaig.  Of course, Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  There’s plenty to like about this new ongoing monthly from Dark Horse Comics, CONAN THE AVENGER.  The script by Fred Van Lente (adapted loosely by materials penned by Robert E. Howard himself) is fairly lean, giving less context to Conan’s larger existence and instead choosing to situate him in this time frame’s here and now.  The artwork by Brian Ching is solid, even if the signature Cimmerian appears a bit thin for my artistic tastes.  Based entirely of the strength of the inaugural issues, I’ll definitely follow along to see where it’s headed.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN THE AVENGER (#1) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Disappointing Artsy Follow-up To A Storyline Not Needing A Sequel]]>  
Look, I get that the first business of any company is to obviously create another sell for the future, but DARK EMPIRE II really serves little to no purpose.  The events of the first installment basically are used lightly as a catalyst to kinda/sorta start everything over.  This means that despite being bested now in the movies and in the first series Emperor Palpatine is back yet one more time to dole out what he sees as retribution to the Rebellion for wiping out his Empire.  Having this resurrection come so quickly on the heels of his last demise even smacks heavily of commercialization at its very worst.
 
The only significant plot development (so far as the characters are concerned) is the impending birth of Leia and Han’s third child (it’ll be named Anakin); otherwise, everything else here feels ridiculously listless, as if they are narrative sequences loosely strung together to cash in on DARK EMPIRE’s popularity (which I’ve admitted in my review of it I never quite understood).  As for the other elements?  Granted this was a story told before the mythology of the Prequel Trilogy had been put into place, but Dark Force Droids?  Really?  Nothing about the ‘science’ of the Force in the Original Trilogy so much as hinted that the Force could become sentient inside of a droid’s limited mind, and this curious development comes with little to no explanation other than, “Yep, that’s what we’re doing now.”
 
Artistically, Dark Empire II takes that almost monochromatic style of the original and injects it with some steroids.  Entire plotlines within the main story are given their own color scheme (i.e. this planet’s events are going to be depicted in green; that planet’s events are going to be depicted in blue; etc.).  So what started out as a pleasant enough diversion giving the first mini some character really veers off into a bizarre art project.  I’m all for giving these series (and miniseries) their own aesthetic appeal, but this pushed the envelope a bit too far.
 
Even worse, DARK EMPIRE II ends on an obvious cliffhanger, perhaps implying that with this iteration Dark Horse really was only interested in figuring out some way to stretch out the incoming cash flow while not having the courtesy to pony up a complete storyline.
 
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  Hey, if you’re like me, then you’ve learned to take what you can get when it comes to new adventures in that galaxy far, far away.  Still, DARK EMPIRE II feels and reads so very much like an afterthought – once Veitch and his crew finished their first mini (let’s say it was the only set of ideas they had), someone tasked them to go back to the well.  What they came up with?  Well, after reading it, I almost wish I hadn’t it was so disappointing.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Did Chaykin Brings Us A 'Shadow" Who Has Lost His Way in the World?]]>  
Naturally, when The Shadow re-appears in the comic books, I take notice.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final, unblemished assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product’s advertising: “New Year's, 1950--the end of a tumultuous decade...and Lamont Cranston, the man the world and the underworld know all too well as The Shadow, has had enough. It's time for the Mysterious Nemesis of Crime to hang up his cloak, his slouch hat, and his twin .45s, and retire from public life... ...But despite this momentous decision, Margo Laine and the rest of the Shadow's agents fear that mankind, teetering on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, may not be quite ready to be bereft of the Dark Avenger.”
 
What?  Could it be … The Shadow is retiring?  That’s part and parcel what readers learn when MIDNIGHT IN MOSCOW opens.  Oh, sure, there are hints that there’s another plot afoot – there’s a parallel storyline running throughout the book which suggests that the world hasn’t grown as quiet as Cranston privately believes – and any reasonable person might conclude that eventually these two paths are going to converge.
 
That said, there’s probably no better hands to have this character in that Howard Chaykin’s.  He’s certainly experienced with the character, so when Lamont talks about the need to finally do something else with his life methinks that Chaykin is probably only toying with how those times are a’changin’, much in the same way a classic character like The Shadow can’t quite seem to secure any street cred with today’s jaundiced audiences.  The hero appears in print every so often, and reprints of the original novels pop up from time-to-time; but – for reasons I’ll admit to not quite grasping – The Shadow has never really been a character who struck a chord with audiences in, say, the past thirty or forty years.  His comics’ runs usually get hacked up; the big budget movie (with Alec Baldwin, for Pete’s sake?) was pretty tepid; and rumors of another cinematic take come and go with great frequency.
 
So Chaykin probably is approaching this character with much the same perspective: has he lost his place in the world?
 
Certainly, it would seem that villainy hasn’t gone quietly into the night circa early 1950 when this tale begins.  There’s a hint that the past twenty years have been as hard on The Shadow as they’ve been on the greater world at large (a World War, the Great Depression, the growth of organized crime, etc.), so maybe it’s with some wariness that Cranston chooses to hang up the cloak, scarf, and hat.
 
Need I say it looks like his departure may be coming too soon?
 
THE SHADOW: MIDNIGHT IN MOSCOW is published by Dynamite Comics.  The story is written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin (who also turns in duties on the cover); with colors provided by Jesus Aburto; and letters by Ken Bruzenak.  From what I’m understanding, the digital version comes with additional materials, which basically take the shape of some black-and-white sketches and script work for the original piece.  Lastly, it all comes at the cover price of $3.99 … a bargain if every there were for such an impressive take on a vintage hero.
 
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  As one who kinda/sorta grew up with The Shadow, I’ve learned in my five decades on God’s green Earth to take what I can get, and I’m totally jazzed by MIDNIGHT IN MOSCOW, Howard Chaykin’s latest foray with the man able to cloud men’s minds.  This first issue offers up just enough mystery I would think to interest even the average comic book reader, though I suspect they’ll leave these parts unexplored in favor of the usual suspects, such as passé mutants, hardened vigilantes, and demigods.  Me?  I’ll stick with the classics, thank you very much.  After all, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows!]]>
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<![CDATA[ Suitable Adventure for the Young-at-Heart Starring Han Solo and His Trusty Sidekick, Chewbacca]]>  
What many of us had wanted to fill the gap in those years between silver screen adventures was a small screen cartoon.  You know the type, right?  The Saturday morning variety?  Practical animation strung together around some wonderful voice acting?  Granted, there were some attempts made, but nothing involving the original cast, which is what we wanted.
 
Now, Dark Horse Comics has kinda/sorta answered our prayers by promising a series of graphic novels far more geared toward the kid in each of us.  First up: Han Solo and the Hollow Moon of Khorya!
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
In the years before the Battle of Yavin (which featured prominently in the climax of the original STAR WARS film), Han Solo and Chewbacca were up to their usual tricks, meaning that they were hopping from star world to star world in pursuit of whatever riches the galaxy offered.  However, a bad decision on the planet Simbarc puts our pair in the crosshairs of Sollima, an alien who operates in quarters shared by the Hutts.  In order to settle an old score, Han is paired up with an old smuggling friend named Billal and sent to recover an accounting droid captured by the Empire, leaving Chewbacca to fight for his life in gladiatorial contests run by Sollima’s cohorts!
 
Solo has always been a lovable rogue, and it’s those sentiments that are brought to glorious life in Jeremy Barlow’s tale of galactic adventure.  In the yarn’s opening, it would seem that his shenanigans have finally drawn even Chewbacca’s ire, making the Wookie question whether or not he wants to serve faithfully aboard the Millenium Falcon any longer.  Seeing that perhaps a break is needed, Han begrudgingly accepts Sollima’s mission to balance the scales in exchange for his wrongdoing.
 
What our captain never counted on was being paired with an old school chum, Billal.
 
As it turns out, he and Billal were far more than casual acquaintances.  In fact, Barlow’s tale postulates that these two were practically brothers; raised in the confines of a school for boys, Solo even tried to get Billal to follow him into the Academy so they could earn their wings together.  By contrast, Billal seems like the type of rascal who could only dream big: whereas Han went out and did what he wanted to do, his young partner from those days lost focus when his pursuit of riches never immediately paid off.
 
As the action unfolds and it becomes increasingly clear to Han that he can’t rely on Billal the same way he could the Wookie, the hotshot pilot realizes he had a pretty good thing going with that ‘walking carpet’ of a partner.  So he spends the rest of the adventure trying to make certain he’ll put things right – despite some new Imperial entanglements – in order to reunited with his regular sidekick, and they can continue doing what they do best on each other’s behalf.
 
As for Chewbacca?
 
He’s having his own adventure which might inevitably bring down an entire planet!
 
HAN SOLO AND THE HOLLOW MOON OF KHORYA is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Jeremy Barlow; the pencils are by Rick Lacy; the inks are by Matthew Loux; the colors are by Michael Atiyeh; and the lettering is by Michael Heisler.
 
RECOMMENDED.  It’s nice to see ‘what could’ve been’ had George Lucas allowed STAR WARS to evolve beyond the silver screen into a far more conventional television cartoon for children.  (I write this at the time after STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS finished its sixth season on Netflix and before STAR WARS: REBELS launches on Disney.)  The animation here is smart enough and the story is interesting enough to show how that galaxy far, far away may’ve looked for the truly kid-friendly.]]>
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<![CDATA[ A Bold Adventure Into Star Trek's Real and Imagined Past!]]>  
I won’t grind my ax.  Instead, I’ll offer up an honest no-bones assessment of the title I purchased myself since you were so unkind as to disappear into the ether on me.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
For the uninformed, Star Trek’s THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER was originally written by a writer who courts controversy at every turn, a man named Harlan Ellison.  Over the years, I’ve read a fair share of Ellison’s work; and – while I’ve always admitted that I’ve never been all that impressed with it – I can certainly see some words and ideas of inspiration as much as the next bloke.  So as a lifelong fan of all things Star Trek I’ve long been familiar with Harlan’s “contribution” to the franchise’s mythology; granted, I’ve never really taken the writer’s word for it (at face value) – by his own admission, he’s burned a lot of bridges in his wake – but it’s nice that nearly 50 years later he’s still willing to spin whatever yarn fans are willing to purchase.
 
Since taking the reins of the STAR TREK comics publishing license, IDW has turned out a handful of quality works.  Much of it that I’ve read has been garbage, honestly – a fault I don’t lay entirely on their shoulders directly but on their decision to honor the ‘creative impulses’ of Roberto Orci, one of the “writers” JJ Abrams’ brought on board to craft the silver screen tales of Kirk and company.  Like Ellison, Orci courts controversy at every turn – why not, especially when your drafts are so disrespectful of existing Trek lore – taking it upon himself to barely stop short of spitting on Trekkers, Trekkies, and general Trek enthusiasts at every opportunity.  It’s a curious decision, but, hey, whatever pays the bills, right?
 
Despite IDW’s conclusion to avoid the ‘blue ink’ by instead focusing on Ellison’s original story, Trek fans might find it hard to do so, and I say this largely because Gene Roddenberry made many claims over the years about why the said tale didn’t ‘work’ the way it was but only one distinction did he offer universally: the said teleplay as provided by Harlan simply “wasn’t filmable.”  The dynamics of weekly TV production being what they are, then it isn’t hard to see when flipping through these pages why Gene made that decision: not only is the scale of the production debatedly much more vast than what could’ve been accomplished in those fertile days long before CGI, but the situation and characterizations within don’t even seem consistent with Star Trek.
 
For example, Harlan’s tale opens with one crewmember basically extorting another crew member over his shipmate’s addiction to some rare galactic PCP.  Was the writer unaware of Gene’s vision for tomorrow?  Our species was supposed to be the ‘good guys’ in outer space, not bloated druglords gallivanting amongst the stars!  The curiously addicted Mister Lebeque – basically a redshirt, though he’s wearing gold – endangers the crew by driving the Enterprise “into the red” and has to be relieved from duty.
 
Once Kirk and Spock and (ahem?) Yeoman Rand go about trying to capture the resident kingpin Beckwith – the man has sealed himself into the transporter room – Ellison chose to have the brave and bold captain pass off duties to take charge of the situation and blast the doors open to … Yeoman Rand?  Stylistically, this is just a huge, huge miss on the writer’s part, one that defies any logical reason.  Why would the captain surrender said responsibilities to his yeoman when Security or even his first officer (Mr. Spock) should rightly rise to the challenge?
 
I could go on with the circumstances on the world below – it’s safe to say that what Ellison imaged for that ‘City on the Edge’ and the Guardians differs pretty significantly from what ultimately ended up on the small screen – but methinks you get the point.  (My chief complaint with the events is that, once they’re on the world below, no one seems to remember that they came down with a purpose in mind – apprehending the escaping Beckwith – and instead go about like wide-eyed children mesmerized by aliens and alien circumstances.)  At this point, I tend to agree that what Gene repeatedly consistently throughout the years – that the story wasn’t filmable – was probably much closer to the truth than perhaps Harlan would let on.  This isn’t to say that his story isn’t epic or not worth being considered; the jury is still out with that as this is only the first chapter.
 
Still, it’s a compelling vision, one I do agree with IDW deserves to be told if for no better reason than to see what could’ve been.  The artwork is stellar, and – no matter how hard JJ and his crew try to remake the Magnificent Seven in their new universe – Shatner, Nimoy, and the others remain firmly positioned in my mind’s eye; thus, it’s great to see them back in top form looking the way they did in the late 60’s.  It’s an inspired trip, indeed; I only hope the writing gets more inspired as it goes.
 
STAR TREK: HARLAN ELLISON’S ‘THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER’: THE ORIGINAL TELEPLAY is published by the deliriously unfriendly to social media outfit better known as IDW Publishing.  The original teleplay is by Harlan Ellison; this particular adaptation is by Scott Tipton & David Tipton; the (stellar) artwork is by J.K. Woodward; with lettering provided by Neil Uyetake; with editing chores completed by Chris Ryall.  The issue comes with the cover price of $3.99 (digital), a bit steep for something so old (if you ask me).
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  To a certain degree, I can agree with the sentiments raising by Editor Chris Ryall in the issue’s afterward: why necessarily revisit all of the controversy involved with Harlan Ellison’s THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER: THE ORIGINAL TELEPLAY when Trek fans really are only interested in seeing how it all would’ve / could’ve / should’ve looked?  That could be because the story as conceived by Ellison wasn’t filmable (as Roddenberry has long suggested), so perhaps this is the only way to do justice to what the original scribe intended.  On that front, CITY looks glorious, and I’ll definitely follow it until the finish.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Confluence of B-Movie Elements Makes TO HELL YOU RIDE Feel Like A B-Movie Comic Book]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
I’m all in favor of what often gets termed ‘vanity projects’ so long as these works serve more than just the creator’s ego.  Minimally this would mean that the tale have a recognizable shelf-life beyond being told (for the sake of it), and it could in some large or small way contribute something to the ongoing legacy of storytelling.  To some, that may sound like a pretty big bill to fill, but it’s actually quite negligible when you consider the vast number of titles available on shelves today for purchase.  It’s just that I’ve seen so many ‘personal message films’ and read so many ‘personal message books’ that I loathe being spoon-fed some particular lesson by those who live in glass houses; I’m perfectly comfortable learning what I need to know about life on my own.
 
Thankfully, actor Lance Henriksen’s inspired TO HELL YOU RIDE isn’t one of those inferior projects.  There’s a germ of inspiration in it – even a relevant, cautionary message about what fate may wait for those of us who ignore our role in being stewards of our world – that transcends the typical vanity work.  Dare I say that the creative crew meant for the book to actually notice things in life not only so much for what they were (or are) but for what they have to potential to become?
 
Still, there’s an effect that pervades most of TO HELL YOU RIDE which may be the unintended and unfortunate side effect of having Henriksen’s face posted as one of the central characters: what you’re reading is actually a contemporary B-movie (think “direct-to-DVD” release) which couldn’t find a suitable mainstream outlet or audience.  There’s nothing wrong with that, per se – as a purveyor of B-movies, I tend to love ‘em from start-to-finish for being so bold as to stay committed to a particular tale if for no better reason than to maintain originality; it will understandably always limit your audience to those who are willing to risk it all with a B-movie.
 
That said, TO HELL YOU RIDE does feel a bit long in the tooth toward its conclusion.  Late in what would be the fourth issue, some new developments kinda/sorta feel like a late-breaking development, one that didn’t serve the narrative as strongly, as directly, or as obviously as it could’ve.  The trade includes a terrific afterward which basically confirms some of these sentiments; and I’d argue that no matter how hard the team worked to include all of these influences that there is something to be said for maintaining a tighter focus.  This would’ve meant resisting the urge to ‘pile on’ at such a late date; but, as they say, it is what it is.
 
TO HELL YOU RIDE is a trade paperback published by Dark Horse Comics which collects issues one through five of the same-named miniseries previously published.  The story is written by Lance Henriksen and Joseph Maddrey; the art is by Tom Mandrake; the colors are provided by Cris Peter with Mat Lopes; the letters are by Nate Piekos of Blambot; with the cover and chapter break art provided by Tom Mandrake and Cris Peter.  There’s a terrific series of smaller essays that serve kinda/sorta as special features for this trade; while I don’t usually point out the significances of such extras, these actually are quite good as they detail some of the creative choices the team made in assembling this particular tale in the fashion they did.  They’re definitely worth the time.
 
RECOMMENDED.  TO HELL YOU RIDE is a wild ride, indeed.  It combines elements on old-age Native American mysticism with a kind of New Age “we’re makers of our own destiny” in a small-town tale of death, rebirth, death, rebirth, and death.  It might be a bit long (methinks a four-issue mini might’ve trimmed a bit of excess), but that’s small potatoes when you’re dealing with a looming near-Apocalypse.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of TO HELL YOU RIDE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Is That A Splash of Color on the Cover, Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product advertisement: “John Lincoln has to break two men out of two separate prisons … simultaneously!  While plotting elaborate revenge against his tormentor, Patricio Brown-Eagle, will he have any time to share with the father he never knew?  Or will the ghosts get a hold of the Dream Thief first?”
 
Perhaps one of the most surprising developments right outta the gate with DREAM THIEF: ESCAPE is the cover: gone is the dark, deep, and somber mystery of the first issue, and – in its place – is a splash of brighter colors and a Miami Vice motif.  What that might mean will probably remain more of a mystery until further events unfold (unless it’s little more than a creative nod to the locale of this chapter’s prologue set in Miami Beach), but otherwise this tale is developing quite nicely.
 
Writer Jai Nitz layers on a nifty flashback that serves to flesh out the characters of his little opus, and he even manages to bring out everything right-minded people hated about the 80’s (leather jackets, Mohawk haircuts, unglamorous pool halls, etc.) in giving the circumstances greater depth.  There’s a terrific little dark vignette here about what can go wrong if a vengeful spirit cannot achieve a measure of justice: you might be surprised at just how crazy one Thief can go.
 
Greg Smallwood’s visuals are no little thing (get the pun?) as we’re treated to some locations rendered depressingly extraordinary despite the commonplace set-up.  A roadside stop off the Florida turnpike has rarely looked as treacherous, and the calm, cool lines of the prison visitors’ center might seem almost uncharacteristically efficient.  Orange is the new blah!
 
John Lincoln shows that he can put the skills and memories of those who have previously possessed him to his own personal use, and that’s largely what gives this installment greater life.  He goes to work setting a prison break in motion, but readers will probably predict nothing is going to unfurl as smoothly as the antihero might have planned.  There’s a terrific development in this issue’s closing pages that will undoubtedly reshape the tale in ways readers probably didn’t see coming, and it almost commands everyone to be here in thirty days to see how it’ll all play out!
 
DREAM THIEF: ESCAPE (#2 OF 4) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Jai Nitz; while the art, lettering & cover are by Greg Smallwood.  It all comes with a cover price of $3.99, still a bargain so far as this long-time comic book reader is concerned.
 
RECOMMENDED.  More of the same as what was served up in the first issue gets a bit more depth as Lincoln starts to unravel family secrets that stretch beyond the grave.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m please to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of DREAM THIEF: ESCAPE (#2 OF 4) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Supernatural Justice Delivered From the Barrel of a Gun]]>  
Many franchises have explored this idea.  On television, shows like SUPERNATURAL and THE GHOST WHISPERER have frequently made great mileage in revisiting such dark circumstances; so you knew it was only a matter of time before comic books followed suit.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product advertisements: “Like his father before him, John Lincoln is a Dream Thief, possessed by vengeful spirits while he sleeps -- a deadly instrument of revenge!  Now he must defend the felon possessed by his father’s ghost … and get revenge against his killer!”
 
There really isn’t all that much ado that can be made about DREAM THIEF: ESCAPE, and that doesn’t mean this is bad news in the slightest.  Rather, I’ve often found it particularly refreshing when any title basically delivers on what it promises: serve up what looks to be a wild ride, and just have fun with it.  ESCAPE starts out quickly, dropping the reader into the heart of two men taking steps to have a wrong righted, and then it clarifies all of the necessary elements to make perfect sense of what went down on the previous pages.  Author Jai Nitz certainly appears to have a game plan built on economy, and no panel is wasted in moving the story forward.  The artwork as provided by Greg Smallwood deals mostly in shadows and Earth-tones – despite the subject matter, it’s pretty clear this team wants everything visually rooted in the modern world.  Together, they build this story up to a modest cliffhanger that promises a greater challenge lurks right around the corner (in thirty days).
 
DREAM THIEF: ESCAPE (#1 OF 4) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Jai Nitz; while the art, lettering & cover are by Greg Smallwood.  It all comes with a cover price of $3.99, still a bargain so far as this long-time comic book reader is concerned.
 
RECOMMENDED.  Even though I was unfamiliar with the 2013 miniseries introducing the characters and situations of this unique criminal universe, DREAM THIEF: ESCAPE wasn’t all that hard to follow.  Basically, there’s a mask and some inherited supernatural abilities that grant our narrator – John Lincoln – the chance to ‘step out of his body’ while restless spirits of the dearly departed make use of his skills to extract vengeance against those who ‘done them wrong.’  The art is understandably gritty; the tone is necessarily cynical; and the pace is quick and dirty.  By the last page of this first issue, everyone should be up-to-speed if not aching for what comes next.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m please to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of DREAM THIEF: ESCAPE (#1 OF 4) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ A Compelling Portrait Of What Conan Comics Were Like In the 1980's]]>  
If that makes me sound like a fuddy-duddy, then so be it.  Still, there’s an awful lot of sublime charm wrapped up in collections of storylines from three decades ago.  No, they may not be your cup of tea.  No, they may not enamor young minds with the pursuits of classic heroes.  But what they retain is a sense of respect for what came before along with a heavy helping of prescience for where audiences could head when literary creations are given first-class treatment in comic books.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product packaging: “He is known as ‘The Great Devil’ – Heku, warlord of the eastern kingdoms, commander of a horde likened to the sands upon the earth.  More than conquest, Heku desires the return of his son, Kobe, once coldly given as a gift to a king but now Conan’s comrade and unwilling to return to his father’s evil embrace.  All Kobe has between him and Heku’s host is his sword and Conan’s friendship, a bond stronger than steel!”
 
I made similar observations in a like-minded collection only the other day: the color palate used throughout much of the 80’s in the Conan books just doesn’t work thematically the way Dark Horse is penning them today.  (That’s no insult; it’s only a reflection of how even graphically times change.)  Back then, color choices were pretty bright, bordering on grade school primary colors.  Characters tended to pop off the page whereas today’s audiences aren’t looking for so much individuation.  There are only a handful of panels in these 200+ pages that lean toward the experimental or artistic (a few hint of the monochromatic), and this serves to give these issues a kind of visual consistency typified by many books of that age.  Also, books were really being pushed to revolutionize storytelling thanks to the influence of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, so these adventures featuring our singular Cimmerian were still relatively kid-friendly by comparison to the full-bore bloodshed one might find in any collection today.
 
I’d still argue, however, that that reality doesn’t make these tales any less interesting for Conan’s audience.  While younger readers might be inclined to set the book aside in favor of darker pursuits, the stories here (some of which I actually read in their original run, may even still have the issues tucked away in bags and boards upstairs) only flirted with edginess, drawing more encouragement from Robert E. Howard’s original stories as opposed to staking out boundless new territory.
 
The book closes with a terrific read that should be required study for every Conan aficionado: it’s an illustrated historical and geographical guide to the worlds of the strongman’s era.  So far as I could tell, it’s very complete, mentioning all the main players – along with a few minor – who at one time or another have made appearances alongside our champion.  It’s a brilliant addition to any fan’s library!
 
THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, VOLUME 27: SANDS UPON THE EARTH AND OTHER STORIES is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The volume collects material originally published in 1986, 1988, and 1989 (Conan the Barbarian issues 206-214 and The Official Handbook of the Conan Universe #1 from Marvel Comics).  The collection features the talents of James Owsley, Charles Santino, Alan Zelenetz, Val Semeiks, Adam Blaustein, Geof Isherwood, Alfredo Alcala, George Roussos, Ron Wagner, John Buscema, Bob Camp, Ernie Chan, Vince Colletta, Mike Docherty, Armando Gil, Andy Kubert, Gary Kwapisz, Dave Simons, Vincent Waller, Mary Wilshire, Steve Mellor, Michael Kaluta, and Janice Chiang.  And for those of you who don’t know (or grew up on an island) Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard.  It all comes with the cover price of $19.99, and that’s a bargain so far as this longtime comic book reader is concerned.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, VOLUME 27 brings with it just the right mix of nostalgia for a time when comics told quieter, simpler tales of classic derring-do and reverence for the source material which worked to inspire generations of storytellers and artists to pick up their tools in the first place.  Naturally – as much of this appeared originally in the mid-to-late 80’s – it may not make a believer out of you if you’re not already a relatively hardcore Conan enthusiast; but it’s always one more reason to get to know the quintessential barbarian if you have the time, money, and inclination.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, VOLUME 27: SANDS UPON THE EARTH by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ A Welcome Blast From King Conan's Past!]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product packaging: “With the tide of war turned, Conan’s armies invade Nemedia, archenemy of Conan’s kingdom of Aquilonia.  As the brutal siege commences, the greatest threat to Conan is not Nemedian sinew or steel, but the steeled heart of a boy raised in the black arts and dedicated to Conan’s destruction.  That boy is none other than Taurus, Conan’s own lost son!”
 
There are many things that work for me, as a reader, in THE CHRONICLES OF KING CONAN, VOLUME 8.  The artwork – drawn from the 80’s – might seem initially like an uncharacteristic choice for what usually is a darker title; much of this is drawn with bright, bold colors, and everything seems to be draped under the light of two glaring guns.  Still, these were choices relatively common for the era in which they were being told.  Also, this incarnation of KING CONAN feels a tad more kid-friendly than contemporary versions; as the 80’s was a time wherein the comic industry as a whole was struggling with an aging audience, what appears here isn’t all that unusual.  Alan Moore and Frank Miller had really only begun transitioning books into much more adult fare, so while I can certainly understand why some readers might put VOLUME 8 aside for more adult fare I think that would be a disservice to the work.
 
What readers might find a bit strange is the fact that these five issues have an overwhelming sense of family to them.  Conan is largely known as the muscular loner; sure, he might have a band of ruffians at his side or a small army at his command, but this barbarian has a virtual entourage in his wake!  He has a bride.  He has a one son and one daughter.  Also, he has another son – Taurus, a lad who is entirely unaware of his lineage to the king and even conspires with dastardly forces to usher the leader into the afterlife!
 
Once you’re into the narrative pacing of the era (it takes an issue to really acquaint oneself with the story), then VOLUME 8 certainly feels familiar.  As it joins a story already in progress, there might be a thing or two here which don’t make perfect sense – consider them hiccups and spur yourself forward.  Even though the colors might not seem right – even though the tone might not seem perfect – this is a Conan worth getting to know.  The collection even leaves the reader with a cliffhanger that practically cries out, “Now go and buy the next installment!”
 
THE CHRONICLES OF KING CONAN, VOLUME 8: THE ROAD TO EMPIRE AND OTHER STORIES is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The trade collects CONAN THE KING issues 36-40 originally published by Marvel Comics circa 1986/87 and never having seen the light of day since.  Also, the trade showcases the talents of Don Kraar, Judith Hunt, Mike Manley, Al Williamson, Art Nichols, Fraja Bator, Armando Gil, Mike Docherty, George Roussos, Janice Chiang, and Ron Wagner.  For those of you who don’t know (shame on you!), Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard.  The volume boasts the cover price of $19.99, and that’s none too shabby so far as this reader is concerned.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  What you won’t find in THE CHRONICLES OF KING CONAN, VOLUME 8: THE ROAD TO EMPIRE AND OTHER STORIES is one complete story.  But what you will find is a compelling vision for Conan comics of the 80’s era, one that pits our fabled Cimmerian against forces who would do him harm in more ways he can imagine.  You’ll also find a surprising sense of what I’ve dubbed ‘The Conan Family Variety Hour’ that might feel a bit off-kilter but works for the narrative just the same.  Give it a go – you might like what you find!
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE CHRONICLES OF KING CONAN, VOLUME 8: THE ROAD TO EMPIRE AND OTHER STORIES by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Take A Breath ... As the Big Finish Is Right Around the Corner!]]>  
If you’re like me in thinking that THE PHANTOM MENACE didn’t quite do the character justice, then this mini – SON OF DATHOMIR – might be precisely what you’re looking for.  It may not answer all of the questions you’ve had since Maul first graced the screen, but it sure works very hard to flesh out the Sith apprentice beyond anything George Lucas gave his audience.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product description: “Darth Maul has captured Darth Sidious’s new apprentice!  Mother Talzin and Maul attempt to sway Count Dooku to their cause, revealing surprising facts about Maul’s past.  But an attack by an elite Jedi strike force throws everyone’s plans into chaos!”
 
What tends to happen with many comic miniseries is that there’s usually a frenzy of action in the first few issues – plot development is usually fast and furious – before the inevitable slowdown around issue three so that readers can catch up, writers can set the pieces for the final act clearly in motion, and artists tie-up some respective loose ends.  SON OF DATHOMIR is no different – the first two chapters saw some blistering, big-scale engagements between the opposing sides; and now – in order for things to be set right (in relative terms) – the action gets dialed back a bit as the Republic finally arrives on the scene.  The Jedi suspect there’s a new alliance in the Axis of Evil (criminal elements of that galaxy far, far away, the Sith, and the Separatist forces), and they’ve even reached a conclusion which might inadvertently play into Darth Sidious’s hands.  What’s a Jedi to do?
 
Because this is a script adapted from material originally intended to be a part of the animated STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS television show, there are a few ‘sequences’ which don’t work as well dimensionally as they probably would’ve in animation.  Battle sequences don’t have the same sense of pace or rhythm when rendered on the page as opposed to being brought to life in motion.  Consequently, there are a few ‘cuts’ between panels which don’t work quite as well as they should (i.e. characters awake, characters stunned in battle, then characters awake again).  The ‘beats’ are there; however, they happen in greatly condensed narration, so it occasionally feels like something is lost in the translation.
 
Also – unlike the previous two issues – SON OF DATHOMIR (#3) ends up being fairly light on the Son of Dathomir himself, Darth Maul.  Story development necessitates Maul having less face time here (i.e. Mother Talzin reveals her big secret; the Jedi investigation requires some space; etc.), and – for my tastes – that softens the impact for the central character.  Maul has emerged as a much more interesting player in all of these events – he’s vastly more interesting in THE CLONE WARS than he was in THE PHANTOM MENACE, which reduced him to a brooding space-biker, tattoos and all.  In fact, it’s safe to say that MENACE had him entirely in reactive mode, whereas SON has given him an evil mind all of his own.  Shorter scenes means less impact, and #3 suffers just a bit because of it by comparison to what’s come before.
 
STAR WARS: DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR (#3) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Jeremy Barlow; the pencils are supplied by Juan Frigeri; the inks are by Mauro Vargas; with the colors by Wes Dzioba; and the lettering by Michael Heisler.  For those of you raised on an island, STAR WARS is the creation of George Lucas.  The issue bears the cover prices of $3.50, and that’s still the best price in town for original STAR WARS material so far as this longtime comics fan is concerned.  May the Force be with us.  Always.
 
RECOMMENDED.  While there’s still a good deal of action in the issue’s closing pages, STAR WARS: DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR (#3) is a breather: get yourselves caught up with modest recap because it certainly looks like the finale is about to be a no-holds-barred showdown between the forces of good and bad in this corner of the universe.  Naturally, we’ll know for sure in thirty days, but it’s always terrific to have something to look forward to, eh?
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR (#3) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ In A Word: EPIC]]>  
A few weeks ago while I was exploring Amazon Fire TV, I stumbled across SPACE: 1999 as a suggestion following another program I’d just concluded.  I took the leap, ordering up the pilot … and the rest, as they say, is history.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to my last paragraph for my final, unadulterated opinion.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
For the uninitiated, SPACE: 1999 was a Science Fiction program produced in the mid-70’s exploring the crew of Moonbase Alpha.  The premise in a nutshell is that man’s stockpiling of nuclear waste on our only satellite serves as a catalyst for an eventual explosion that propels the moon out of orbit and moving into deep, deep space.  Instead of a starship, the program had a ‘moonship,’ and the stories of the crew ranged from tales of survival, invasion, and terror.
 
Naturally – as the late 60’s era classic STAR TREK ruled the roost in TV syndication in those days – Sci-Fi fans were kinda/sorta split on what to make of SPACE: 1999.  So much of their collective effort had gone into demanding a new Trek series (one was on-the-boards but through circumstances it morphed into what inevitably became STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE), and I think maybe the feeling at the time was that they couldn’t openly embrace another TV show for fear of losing sight on achieving their first dream, that being a return to prominence for Capt. Kirk and crew.  Also as 1999 had been sold into syndication right out of the gate – whereas Trek had its infancy and initial reputation from being on network TV – I tend to suspect that it wasn’t as easily found on the dial.  Due to this and other reasons, 1999 rode down the middle of critical opinion, some liking it, some hating, but many others just not knowing what to make of it.
 
Now that I’d found it and explored a handful of what are largely revered to be several of its first season classics (I won’t even touch the debate regarding the show’s second season), I picked up that copy of AFTERSHOCK AND AWE (yes, it was still there).  Having just finished it, let me assure you that I am in AWE of it.
 
Essentially, it’s two graphic novels culled together around the series’ pilot, though there are indications that scribe Andrew E. C. Gaska consulted earlier drafts of the script in order to produce this version.  Where the recounting of the televised events end, the creators pick right up with an all-new tale, one exploring the events taking place on Earth after our moon was sent hurtling away and out of our solar system.  While heavy on biblical prophecy, AFTERSHOCK is a brilliant apocalypse tale, a vision that borrows elements from the show’s canon and spins them in some wildly effective new directions, though I was a bit distraught with how much of a downright skank Commander John Koenig’s near-miss of a wife turned out to be.
 
These two scripts work brilliantly together, helping first to re-establish the program’s central characters from a more cerebral perspective in the minds of the reader and then to shake up the status quo by exploring the greater universe of possibilities that helped shape who they were before they found themselves on this great journey into the unknown.  Separately, they’re quite good, but together they’re practically ‘required reading’ for anyone with even a modest interest in what was and what could still be in a Sci-Fi property that deserves another look.
 
Building on Gaska’s script, the visuals by Gray Morrow and Miki are at times derivative but never disrespectful to the unique 70’s appeal of the program.  Once the story turns to Earth, the art duties are taken up by David Hueso and Miki; they continue to build on that original artistic scheme, but they deliver a jaw-dropping look at the unfolding Apocalypse with more pomp and circumstance than one expects from a big-budget cinematic blockbuster.  Trust me when I warn you: the End of Times never looked so good!
 
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  If you were even a casual fan of SPACE: 1999 throughout its two televised seasons, then you owe it to yourself as well as all of fandom to run out and pick up a copy today (or, better yet, save a tree and get it digitally) of SPACE: 1999 – AFTERSHOCK AND AWE.  What Gaska/Morrow/Hueso/Miki and Archaia Black Label have achieved here is nothing short on epic: sure, there may be a few narrative blemishes that don’t go down as well as they should, but otherwise what you get is a pitch perfect re-examination of the fictional events that set this greatly underappreciated series in motion from two completely exciting perspectives.
 
Now, Hollywood … where’s THIS reboot?!?!]]>
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<![CDATA[ THE STRAIN Strains Credibility With So Many Derivative Elements]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
A Boeing 777 lands in New York City, bringing with it a horror that’s gone undiscovered for the better part of the last century.  It’s vampires – not the ordinary cape-wearing variety but undead, naked, lizard-tongued types – and they’re about to destroy civilization … unless an elderly pawnbroker and a team from the CDC can stop the carnage before it even begins!
 
What serves as a catalyst to set this story in motion (after the obligatory flashback set-ups) is an airliner lands in New York City and then loses contact with the tower.  Once aboard, investigators find what appears to be the dead bodies of a doomed flight with three exceptions (believed to be survivors).  The truth is something vastly more complex … but what I couldn’t help recognizing was that I’d seen this set-up before.  In fact, I’d seen it twice before, both times on the Fox television network – it was a narrative construct used for The X-Files and then again in the pilot episode for Fringe.  (Should I be all that surprised that the television version of this story is premiering only days away on the FX Network?!?!)
 
Now, I don’t want to feel like I’m picking on creator Guillermo del Toro.  The man certainly has a way of telling a story that’s unique; he has a strong command of visuals, and that’s probably why most of his work inspires so much of fandom.  I appreciate a visionary as much as the next person, but when you’re openly stealing ideas from your own previous exploits (such as the UV bombs featured in this story’s climax) maybe it’s time to hang it up until you have some other inspiration.  See, the movie BLADE II was directed by del Toro, and maybe he’s hoping folks don’t notice the similarities between elements introduced there and those in THE STRAIN.  UV bombs.  Vampires with these long, long tongues.  I noticed them.  I did – they practically jump off the page – and, while I won’t fault the man for re-using good ideas, I honestly expected greater ‘wow’ factor giving this property’s excessive TV build-up.
 
Still, I’m a sucker for a monster story.  On that level, THE STRAIN is a perfectly acceptable vehicle to get jazzed up about.  It has a kind of visual flourish here that feels right – plenty dark and hints of sensuality never feel out of place in the more Gothic scares – though perhaps it smacks of some obvious theatricality at times.  It’s worth a read, though I’d be suspect about where all of this can go that hasn’t been done before.
 
Therein lies my only real complaint with most of THE STRAIN: despite being a rather good modern-day vampire story, there’s an awful lot of it that feels like it’s been done before.  Besides the doomed airliner set-up, there’s very little to distinguish these characters from so, so many who have come before.  In fact, Syfy recently aired the first season of HELIX – a program involving some genetic virus in the Arctic – which featured a prominent scientist (played by Billy Campbell) who – lo and behold – had one failed marriage under his belt while coping with attractions from a prominent coworker; THE STRAIN’s main character is almost a carbon copy.
 
THE STRAIN: VOLUME 1 (HARDCOVER) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is adapted by David Lapham from creator Guillermo del Toro’s work; with illustrations and artwork provided by Mike Huddleston and Dan Jackson.  (The artwork does look very, very solid consistently through the tome.)
 
RECOMMENDED.  As a modern day vampire story, THE STRAIN works pretty well … even though there are huge parts of it that feel derivative of sights, sounds, and themes that have been explored elsewhere (even by Guillermo del Toro himself!).  I guess that’s not a bad thing; it just kept me from possibly enjoying the story more than I would have under better circumstances.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE STRAIN: VOLUME 1 (HARDCOVER) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ The (Dark) Force Is Strong With This Mini!]]>  
Dare I suggest that scribe Jeremy Barlow may be taking Darth Maul in the same direction?
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the product packaging: “With his Shadow Collective army stalled, Darth Maul calls on Mother Talzin for help and is sent reinforcements – the deadly Nightbrothers!  Maul is ready again to take on the Separatist droid army, Count Dooku, and General Grievous – in a trio of simultaneous battles!”
 
To be honest, I wasn’t all that thrilled either when STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS actually brought Darth Maul back from the dead … but as we learned he wasn’t quite dead.  As the story goes, he was kinda/sorta subsisting on all of the anger and hate that fueled his body in that netherworld (netherplace?); so it wasn’t really all that much of a logistical problem to reanimate the Sith.  In fact, one could argue that the character was finally in the proper state of mind to do something with all of that rage.
 
Whatever your position, Maul is back; and – in writer Barlow’s hands – he’s actually taking a few steps forward.  The Maul we knew from THE PHANTOM MENACE and THE CLONE WARS (to some degree) was never really depicted as the smartest Dathomirian Zabrak in the known galaxies.  In MENACE, he largely brooded from one scene to the next, turning in a wonderfully kinetic experience in the saber battle where he bested Qui-Gon Jinn but then fell to (a weaker) Obi-Wan Kenobi.  In THE CLONE WARS, viewers were given the sense that this new Maul – one heavily influenced by the darkest emotions – wasn’t going to go quietly into the night … and that’s certainly turned out to be the case in this comic book miniseries.
 
Essentially picking up moments after the first issue ends, scribe Barlow puts Maul in a position of humility as the Sith has to call on Mother Talzin for any and all assistance she can provide.  No doubt, this only further fires the hate he feels in whatever is left of a beating heart; and this forces him to come up with an even grander strategy, one that’ll not only put Count Dooku and General Grievous well within his grasp but also one that strongly suggests the tide may be finally turning against Darth Sidious’s favor.
 
Because I’m willing to concede bringing Maul back into the universe maybe wasn’t such a bad idea after all, I’m having a lot of fun with this mini right now.  Granted, it would’ve been nicer to have some bigger, more expansive artwork to go right along with the scope of the narrative (many panels are fairly light on elements, and some of the colors look downright uninspired); but as Dark Horse’s time with the STAR WARS’ license is winding down, perhaps this is the best we can hope for at present.
 
Still, things are shaping up pretty nicely.  Can they get even better?  We’ll have to be here in 30 days to find out!
 
STAR WARS: DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR (#2) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Jeremy Barlow; the pencils are supplied by Juan Frigeri; the inks are by Mauro Vargas; with the colors by Wes Dzioba; and the lettering by Michael Heisler.  For those of you raised on an island, STAR WARS is the creation of George Lucas.  The issue bears the cover prices of $3.50, and that’s still the best price in town for original STAR WARS material so far as this longtime comics fan is concerned.  May the Force be with us.  Always.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  As this tale involves Darth Maul and a fair percentage of fandom kinda/sorta rejects his whole ‘resurrection’ (of a sort), I’d imagine you know right now whether or not reading this interests you.  Sure, maybe he was better off dead, but isn’t there something said for never being able to keep a good Sith down?  The artwork may not be anything exceptional (some panels are Saturday morning cartoonish – not that there’s anything wrong with it), but a chess game set against the backdrop of a whole galaxy is definitely in motion before you reach the last page in this book.  Buckle up, kid.  This ain’t like dustin’ crops!
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR (#2) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Blast from the Past: DARK EMPIRE Reconsidered (After All These Years)]]>  
One of the first big breakthroughs was something called DARK EMPIRE.  It went on to have a few sequels, but – for my tastes – I honestly didn’t much care for this tale even when it first hit the shelves.  It isn’t that I disliked the idea of exploring an Emperor Palpatine resurrected in the days of the New Republic fumbling to establish a firm footing; it’s just that so much of Tom Veitch’s story felt like character retreads.
 
More after the break …
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Essentially, the story that unfolds here is that the Empire isn’t quite as dead as our heroes – Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa-Solo, Han Solo, and more – long believed it to be.  In fact, some lingering elements in the inner galaxies have gone a long way toward re-establishing their own union, putting the New Republic back on its heels and having to fight in smaller isolated conflicts once more.  Naturally, this brings our gang back together, and they’re rushed to the front lines in order to give yet one more ‘New Hope’ street cred with faltering worlds.
 
Lo and behold, our young Skywalker – now a bit older – discovers that the Emperor (aka Darth Sidious) has been resurrected (in a sense).  It would seem that his life essence has become a part of the living Dark Side – much like Obi-wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker have merged with the Light Side elements; all the former Palpatine need do is pull a younger version of himself out of a clone canister and – viola – new Emperor!  Now, he’s using some massive new weapons known as ‘World Devastators’ to crush planets that won’t bend to his will.
 
Just as was the thematic undercurrent for the Luke Skywalker character in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI (and many, many Extended Universe tales since then), this new Emperor wants to turn our hero to the Dark Side.  What makes this tale a bit different is that the Jedi seemingly does embrace it, though he admits to readers over and over again that he’s done so only to get closer to Palpatine so that he can inevitably defeat him.  Leia, Han, and the others don’t see as clearly what Luke’s motivations are, so they spend the bulk of their time trying to contact the Jedi Master so they can ‘reclaim’ him for their side … and, so far as I can tell, that about wraps it up.
 
DARK EMPIRE is a worthy read, but it’s nothing that really smacks of originality or epicness (if you’ll pardon my creation of the word).  The Emperor is the same – as are all of our regular players – so nothing new added to the mix pretty much leaves this tale tasting like something we’ve all had before.  That in itself isn’t enough reason to resist the story’s obvious temptations – could it be that Luke won’t survive the Emperor’s machinations this time? – which is why I basically deem it worth a read but little else.  Plus, DARK EMPIRE has a weird artistic template; it’s almost as if illustrator Cam Kennedy (who does terrific work) made some curious decision to color the worlds of George Lucas monochromatically, and, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how anyone thought that was a good idea.  (???)  One of the most enduring qualities of STAR WARS is how different the various worlds and machines and droids look from one to another, so casting so very many panels in as few color choices as possible makes no narrative much less commercial sense.
 
Heck, even the long-rumored dead Boba Fett shows up for what plays out like an almost obligator appearance, one meant to recapture the magic of the bounty hunters glory days instead of adding legitimacy to the web being spun here.  I like Boba Fett.  I get most fanboys like Boba Fett.  But his appearance here?  It just didn’t need to be.
 
RECOMMENDED.  I’m smitten with most of the Dark Horse’s adventures from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away; still, there’s something about DARK EMPIRE that just underwhelmed me.  There were a few moments of greatness – Luke’s commitment to kinda/sorta bringing the Force into balance; Leia’s love for family despite the obvious hardships; Han’s ribbing of his brother-in-law; etc. – but most of them underscore relationships already so firmly established that there was little new brought to the game.  Otherwise, much of this tale flew on autopilot, and it was hardly as DARK as it could’ve been.  Good – worth a read – but far from great.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Lara Croft Suffers Through A Second Installment of Gail Simone's 'Plain Jane' Makeover]]>  
Wanna know more?  Hang on after the break …
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
The way of the true action hero would, Lara Croft has defied the odds: not even a flood of Biblical proportions (and one with plenty of Biblical allegory) could wash her away, and she even manages to save a life in the process.  But survival alone isn’t enough as she realizes she has only one piece of a slowly emerging puzzle … one that might spell certain doom for Lara and her friends if she doesn’t act fast!
 
Ok.  Look.  I get that for whatever reason Gail Simone and the stewards at Dark Horse Comics felt it was time to go another way with Lara Croft.  Essentially, they’ve taken a seminal character of the video game revolution and given her a curious makeover.  Gone is Lara’s slick hairstyles only to be replaced with something that occasionally looks like it’s never had a comb run through it.  Gone are the tight, revealing t-shirts in favor of out-of-season blouses two sizes too big.  Gone are her Daisy Duke shorts and, in their stead, are baggy blue jeans or something that looks like bargain basement brown stirrup pants.  I mean … have you seen Lara in the panel at the center-bottom of Page 17?  (Note: page numbering can be notoriously different from digital to print versions.)  She’s wearing what I’d honestly suspect just came off a homeless person.
 
At some point, makeovers get ridiculous.  I’m laughing, Gail Simone, and I don’t think that’s what you intended.
 
I get that you wanted to show that an action heroine didn’t need to have D-cups in order to dish out a quality story, but you might want to encourage your creative team to avoid dressing her in the latest Ross sales gear as well.  I’ve no problem with taking a character in a bold new direction; I just didn’t realize that meant readers would have to shuffle through page after page of seeing Lara Croft looking like she was dressing in drag.  And bad drag, at that.
 
To my delight, this second issue is a marked improvement in terms of story.  The first issue had a respectable amount of action, but it wasn’t all that interesting, nor did the pacing feel right.  This time out, Lara gets from Point A to Point B with a noticeable increase in intrigue: the mythology elements are in place, and there’s even an Asian-looking baddie showing up threatening to kill people at a moment’s notice.  You get an A for improvement in that department, but the constant affinity for drabness is now starting to smother what could be an otherwise interesting adventure in the life of every fanboy’s favorite shapely adventurer.
 
At this point, I can’t imagine this title sinking any lower.
 
TOMB RAIDER #2 is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Gail Simone; the pencils are drawn by Nicolas Daniel Selma; the inks are supplied by Juan Gedeon; the colors have been filled in by Michael Atiyeh; and the lettering is done by Michael Heisler.  The issue bears the cover price of $3.50, and – despite the underwhelming nature of it all – that’s still a fair price to pay for the quality of what’s packed between the covers.
 
RECOMMENDED.  It isn’t as if I’m not enjoying this TOMB RAIDER reboot.  Author Gail Simone’s script is interesting enough, and the story certainly contains some of the elements one could expect from characters in such a tale (i.e. action, adventure, intrigue, international players, ancient mythology, etc.).  It’s just that so much of it is poorly presented from the art team of Selma, Gedeon, and Atiyeh (mentioned above).  There’s no spark of magic.  There’s no thrill of the chase.  As a consequence, Lara Croft feels more like ‘Plain Jane’ in this artistically tepid makeover.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of TOMB RAIDER #2 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Fast, Fun, & Familiar MAUL Is Off To A Great Start In New Miniseries]]>  
To my surprise, DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR’s first issue recalls some of those same undercurrents, pitting the Emperor’s failed apprentice against the Emperor himself as well as those who rose up to replace him when he fell so far.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
For those of you not in the know, Darth Maul survived the events previously depicted in STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE: the animated CLONE WARS series resurrected the Dark Jedi from the abyss, fueling him on a kind of existential hate and depositing him right in the midst of the chaos that is those wars.  However – as this tale opens – Maul’s been captured.  It isn’t long before he’s rescued by agents of his sinister organization, and this only means that Count Dooku and General Grievous will be tasked with bringing the Sith back, even at the risk of their own forces!
 
I won’t belabor a longer plot synopsis, mostly because SON OF DATHOMIR is probably a title you already know whether or not it interests you based on the big star attraction: Maul himself.  While other fans have voiced their disdain for bringing the red-faced devil back from the dead, I’ve had absolutely no problem with it.  In fact, I think it’s given some storytellers the opportunity to further explore this phantom menace who didn’t get much time to chew scenery on the big screen as I would’ve liked.  What started out as a rather two-dimensional villain has grown almost affectionately into a force all of his own in both the animated program and a handful of comic miniseries.
 
Similar to the tone of the Thrawn Trilogy, SON OF DATHOMIR starts out looking like a chess match between these opposing forces of evil: Maul wants nothing more than to rid the galaxy of Dooku, while the Count wants to make good on his agent’s (Grievous) promise to see the same happen to Maul.  The fact that Emperor Palpatine shows up albeit briefly in the opening pages makes for great drama, the kind of which one should have come to expect from Dark Horse’s talented stable.
 
As a first issue, this one works admirably, introducing readers to the particular time and place of these events, even kinda/sorta clarifying where the go in the greater chronology of the Clone Wars.  Scribe Jeremy Barlow crafts a masterful tale by pitting these characters against one another, along with the promise of drawing out who the Emperor sees as a greater threat – the Dathomir witches as lead by Mother Talzin – and I, for one, hope he can deliver on such a huge promise.  The artwork – as put together by the team of Juan Frigeri, Mauro Vargas, and Wes Dzioba – isn’t the greatest that has come from the publisher: several panels boast an almost minimalist style (shadows and silhouetted characters depicted against bright backdrops), but I’ve always been one for ‘story’ over ‘style’ six days a week and twice on Sunday.
 
SON OF DATHOMIR feels like a comfortable trip through hyperspace.  Maybe it’s a bit familiar.  Maybe it’s a bit derivative.  But it’s a quick two dozen pages into that galaxy far, far away I’m more than happy to read.
 
STAR WARS: DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR (#1) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Jeremy Barlow; the pencils are supplied by Juan Frigeri; the inks are by Mauro Vargas; with the colors by Wes Dzioba; and the lettering by Michael Heisler.  For those of you raised on an island, STAR WARS is the creation of George Lucas.  The issue bears the cover prices of $3.50, and that’s still the best price in town for original STAR WARS material so far as this longtime comics fan is concerned.  May the Force be with us.  Always.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  It’s Dark Horse.  It’s Star Wars.  It’s Darth Maul.  It’s the Clone Wars.  If you’re been on this wild ride as long as I have, then you’ll realize that it’ll soon be coming to an end as the license moves to Marvel Comics later this year.  DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR starts out with Maul and the Emperor coming face-to-face once more, and it ends with the fallen apprentice on-the-run from the Separatist Forces allied against him and his black criminal league.  This is a great start to what might very well be the last original miniseries from the Horse’s mouth … and I’m already feeling the pangs of withdrawal.  Hop aboard while there’s still a chance.  This one looks to be solid.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: DARTH MAUL – SON OF DATHOMIR (Part One) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Recommended DEATH Is As Exhausting As It Is Epic]]>  
So – being perfectly clear – let me also say that unlike countless others I’ve never been all that enamored with The Joker as Batman’s signature villain.  Sure, he’s a lunatic, and he’s driven to carry out every criminal act more despicable than the one before.  Madness has to count for something.  While I can appreciate that he’s always been intended to be the yin to Batman’s yang (or vice versa), I just saw him as the resident maniacal weirdo.  Nothing else.
 
Throughout the years, The Joker has had his share of good stories, and it’s easy to see how Scott Snyder’s “Death to the Family” tries to up the ante, putting the pale-faced grinner front-and-center in his efforts to perhaps once and for all say and/or do something definitive in his relationship with the Bats.  These two have been at one another’s figurative throat for so long it’s no wonder other writers haven’t come up with this exact storyline (it bears some mild resemblance to others, almost as if Snyder and his creative cohorts picked up elements of their favorite Bat-yarns throughout the years and mixed ‘em up in a cauldron for good measure); still, it’s Snyder’s signature command of dialogue that makes this one somethin’ special.
 
But it also makes it something downright exhaustive.
 
In the 80’s, I can remember debating the merits of the Batman having so many secondary crimefighters to help keep Gotham’s streets clean.  You had Robin.  You had Nightwing.  You had Batgirl.  You had Alfred.  Why, those alone and his on-again-off-again kinda/sorta romance/kinship with Catwoman meant, any given issue could easily turn into “The Bat-Family Adventure Hour.”  And – to be perfectly honest – I hated it.  It wasn’t that I hated any individual character; it was just that I always (always) saw The Bat as the quintessential loner.  Gotham’s last man standing.  Sure, some tales required he have some assistance, but, all-in-all, the tales I enjoyed were ones where he was the lone wolf going up against a pack of rabid dogs.
 
While drawing some modest allusions to the previously published tale “A Death in the Family,” Snyder’s “Death to the Family” tries to dial the drama up to eleven: The Joker captures every single member of the Bat-family in order to bring about Batman’s worst nightmare – the death of everyone.
 
This is what I mean when I say I’m honestly surprised no one came up with this exact story earlier.  It isn’t unheard of that Batman would suffer some tragedy to those closest to him; rather, what’s less likely to remain is allowing said tragedy to actually stand and become a lasting, final part of the greater Bat-mythos.  In the aforementioned “A Death in the Family,” Jason Todd bites the dust – or so we were lead to believe – at the hands of The Joker yielding a particular bloody crow bar.  (Heck, you kids can even Google that whole affair to discover what modest controversy it created beyond the covers.)  Proving that old adage – “no one ever really dies in fiction” – Jason’s back and in Batman’s good graces, making him only one of the several targets for the new-and-improved Joker (face not included).
 
Because the big finish (which takes for-e-ver) requires every member of The Bats’ entourage to be in jeopardy at the same time, there’s a massive amount of set-up here; and this is where the tale grinds to a near-halt.  Sure, it’s great to have the entirety of one impressive tale available in one handsome collection, so I’ll happily give kudos to DC there … only several of these lesser arcs really aren’t complete.  Don’t get me wrong: all you need to know about each and every character and how he (or she) plays into the conclusion is here – what’s missing is a slew of narrative hooks clearly continuing storylines of these separate ongoing monthlies.  For example, there’s a whole slew of references in the arc involving the Teen Titans, but half of it makes little to no sense to this reader because I’m unfamiliar with those characters and their respective growing pains.  Same thing with the Catwoman issues included.  Ditto with the Batgirl.  Oh, yeah, and Harley Quinn and her activities.
 
Catch my drift?
 
While I do appreciate having these issues collected here, their appearance doesn’t come without the extra baggage.  Snyder’s verbosity – while admirable – also tends to thrust The Bats’ and The Joker’s big showdown back into second gear.  (He’s brilliant at what he does, bar none one of the finest working today in DC’s stable; I just think he could use a stronger editor.)  My best suggestion?  Don’t even try to read all of this in one sitting.  I did … and then I went back and read it again because so much of these secondary appearances made so little sense to me at first blush.
 
Epic?  Yes.  One for the ages?  Possibly.  Recommended?  You betcha?
 
An easy reading assignment?  Not hardly.]]>
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<![CDATA[ As THE BLACK CIRCLE Began, So It Ends: In Mediocrity]]>  
Let’s dissect, shall we?
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the book’s editorial page:  “With the black peak on Yimsha in sight, Conan and Devi Yasmina are ambushed by the Black Seer Khemsa and his lover Gitara in hopes to ransom the devi for themselves.  But Khemsa’s betrayals have not gone unnoticed by his master and the Black Circle descends upon the group!  Ignoring Conan, the Black Circle swiftly dispatches their misguided brother and his lover, and steal Yasmina away, leaving Conan to plot his next action …”
 
One of the significant disadvantages to having read so many Conan tales and then being tasked with reviewing one like THE BLACK CIRCLE is that, invariably, there are mental comparisons to other better and lesser works.  Since they’re all about Conan and his various adventures, it gets hard to separate one from the other – you want to know that they’re all adding up to some grand legacy.  Still, a wise man once told me that life is only time spent between one’s more emotional high points – meaning that you’ll spend far more time just ‘being’ than ever feeling ‘exalted’ in any measure.
 
That being said, the best I can sum up this tale is that (A) it’ll never register as one of my favorites and (B) it’ll likely turn me off from ever seeking out the actual source material (the written word of Robert E. Howard).  For THE BLACK CIRCLE feels like a ‘black mark’ on Dark Horse’s otherwise pretty respectable record with the seminal Cimmerian – it dishes little action, it rarely makes narrative sense (at least, to me it didn’t), and it makes the barbarian look as though he’s lived a life of luck than boundless excitement.
 
See, I don’t want to see Conan second guessing what to do next.  I don’t either want him seeking out adventure solely for adventure’s sake because I’ve always pictured him as the ultimate “smart” barbarian – sure, he’ll gladly cross blades with any man should the opportunity arise, but he’ll have some cause behind it before he wastes burning calories without reason.  In these final pages recounting his exchange with THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE (and, for the record, they’re not so much people as they are lizard-men), I see Conan going to rescue a kidnapped princess who the last I checked was his sworn enemy.  Didn’t he, after all, kidnap her solely with the intent of recovering seven of his captured comrades?  (Yes, I know that they were killed under other circumstances, but at what point did these two ever become allies of a type that he would risk his life for her?)
 
Now, I suppose one could reasonably stress that Yasmina was being held by forces of darkness so it would stand to reason that Conan would go after her merely just for spite.  Right?  Isn’t that possible?  Meh.  Like I said, I suppose that could be the case, and I suppose that’s what I’ll have to settle on as this one ends pretty definitively.  (Let’s just say that I, for one, hope there’s no sequel.)  That might be the case because even Yasmina gloriously announces “I knew you’d come for me!” in the big finish (which finally does serve up the requisite amount of bloody action), defying all sense of logic.
 
Still, there’s a brief coda that kinda/sorta returns them to their adversarial positions, none too quickly if you ask me.
 
CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE (#04 of 04) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The script is adapted by Fred Van Lente; the artwork is done by Ariel Olivetti; with the letters provided by Richard Starkings & Comicraft.  For those of you who grew up on an island, this tale and Conan’s creation rests entirely on the shoulders of Robert E. Howard.  This issue bears the cover price of $3.50, and – as much as that matters – it’s a bargain available only to those who have it to spend: Dark Horse’s reputation for quality is second-to-none so far as this reader is concerned.
 
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  I wanted to like this one, but CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE just felt too lukewarm too much of the time.  Light on action and even lighter on reason, this tale probably wouldn’t bring too many new readers to the fold; and it’ll probably leave some (like me) scratching their heads in mild disgust.  The best reason to hang through four issues?  Olivetti’s artwork is pretty killer right up until the last panel.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE #04 of 04 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form contributed to my evaluation of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Third Issue Proves THE BLACK CIRCLE Is More Opaque Than Anything Else]]>  
Let’s dissect, shall we?
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the book’s editorial page: “The devi Yasmina attempted to coerce Conan into helping avenge her brother’s murder, but he kidnapped her instead.  Wazuli tribesmen attacked them, but luckily the chieftain, Yar Afzal, was an old friend of Conan’s.  However, when Khemsa, a Seer, kills Yar, the Wazulis believe Conan is responsible.  On the run again, Conan and Yasmina spot the black peak of Yimsha …”
 
Well …
 
I’ve honestly been waiting patiently for this tale – this one involving the people of the BLACK CIRCLE – to actually take of in some recognizable fashion; and, thus far, it hasn’t.  Issue 3 opens up with yet one more peaceful exchange between Conan and some secondary characters, and I’m now fully inclined to believe that – for reasons I may not be able to fully explain – this just isn’t one for the ages.  As I think I’ve maligned in my reviews of the first two issues, there just isn’t any action or adventure here, despite the fact that there are deaths of nobles and princesses and dark sorcerers and everything else one might expect from a Conan yarn.  What there isn’t is cohesion.
 
When a man filled with brutal abilities can (dare I say) talk his way out of every legitimate encounter, one has to question why he honed his skills with a blade for so many years?  Instead, why didn’t he spend some quality time with learned nobles and/or court jesters or others with a penchant for persuasiveness?    Why cultivate the reputation of a brawler when all one need be for the story is a braggart?  It seems like such a waste of muscle mass, much less cardio.
 
Again, scribe Van Lente pays close attention to packing his pages with the fewest panels in order to allow more space for speech bubbles.  Conan lectures the princess on trickery here.  They debate the merits of the geography there.  Thankfully, it’s only a few pages in when our featured pair come face-to-face with the dastardly sorcerer on a hilltop … where they spend another page just exchanging barbs.  Then – out of nowhere – there’s an entire wandering circus of lizard-faced sorcerers apparently in conflict and … bah!  This really makes so little sense!  The already kidnapped princess gets kidnapped again, and the BLACK CIRCLE is now off in yet some other unforeseen direction.
 
Still, the “barbarian” (I’m taken with using quotes on that word from now on because I’m not sure that Van Lente understands its meaning) meets up with that villain who wanted to take his life only two pages earlier.  Instead of handily dispatching the already ailing source of evil, Conan lets the man have a peaceful death.  Gone are the days when rugged adventurers speeded the enemies into the afterlife; now with left with an older, wiser, kinder, and gentler Conan who holds his adversary’s hand while he dies.
 
I’m getting too old for this stuff.
 
CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE (#03 of 04) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The script is adapted by Fred Van Lente; the artwork is done by Ariel Olivetti; with the letters provided by Richard Starkings & Comicraft.  For those of you who grew up on an island, this tale and Conan’s creation rests entirely on the shoulders of Robert E. Howard.  This issue bears the cover price of $3.50, and – as much as that matters – it’s a bargain available only to those who have it to spend: Dark Horse’s reputation for quality is second-to-none so far as this reader is concerned.
 
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  THE BLACK CIRCLE appears to finally be heading for some big finish – there’s the hint that the Cimmerian will storm a mountain in order to kill the four masters of some dark magic – but it all comes more than a bit too-little-too-late for this reader.  It’s all been handed with far too much talk and so little action that I’ve lost caring about seeing the bad guys dispatched to the Underworld.  More likely, they’ll all turn up in some book club … with Conan leading the discussion!
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE #03 of 04 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form contributed to my evaluation of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Lackluster Second Issue Doesn't Improve On Muddled Storytelling]]>  
Let’s dissect, shall we?
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the book’s editorial page: “The king of Vendhya is dead.  His noble sister – the devi Yasmina – has sworn to exact revenge upon his killers, the villainous Seers of Yimsha.  Yasmina attempts to enlist the aid of Conan, but he kidnaps her instead.  As Conan makes his escape, a sinister plot is uncovered when the devi’s servant, Gitara, reveals herself to have been instrumental in the king’s assassination …”
 
Taking a stab at a character who already maintains a regular monthly title can be a bit treacherous for any creative team.  Readers tuning in because they want “more of the same” might be quickly disappointed when they learn than that isn’t necessarily what this writer intended.  Additionally, one artist’s take on the classic leading hero may stretch into new territory, causing an even greater disconnect between the narrative and the artwork; where these should complement one another, they run the risk of feeling slightly distant to one another.  Granted, this doesn’t always happen – it may not happen at all – but something just doesn’t quite feel right with this take on the BLACK CIRCLE.
 
Instead of the exposition-heavy first issue, this second chapter does (thankfully!) open up with panels of exactly what draws most folks to a Conan story: action.  And blood.  Buckets of it when necessary.  However, imagine how red Conan’s face should be when the unfortunate fellow he slays turns out to be the foot-man of an ally.  Only prompting further confusion, Kerim Shah (the said ally) never even utters so much as a curse at the Cimmerian for savagely slaying his soldier.  I guess (in fantasy) henchmen are in fruitful supply!
 
Still, this second issue feels unnecessarily weighed down in exposition.  I suppose I understand that all ne’er-do-wells love to take the opportunity to grandstand or chew scenery every chance they get, but these villains seem more intent on talking one to death than fighting.  Far too many panels get committed to chitchat, and far too much plot unfolds as a consequence.  I don’t know what you expect from a Conan story, but rest assured I could do with less fluff.
 
Still, Olivetti’s artwork remains perhaps the only reason to hang with this miniseries.  The appearance of some grand sorcerer is handled with particular flourishes – there are plenty of small touches (i.e. the way a hand is held, the simple look of sparks vs. glowing orbs of spells, etc.) that a lesser talent might draw greater attention to, but the balance here is delightful.  Evil is best handled with some creative nuance, so it is too much to ask that Olivetti would maybe have a few words with Van Lente about trimming the prose?
 
In fact, Van Lente drapes far too many pages in background and speech bubbles that, by Page 11, I began wondering if he realized he was hired to craft a graphic adaptation and not simply rework Robert E. Howard’s text.  A few pages work nicely with better balance between the creative personnel, but this one is still shaping up way too wordy for my tastes.  If it seems like I’m beating a dead horse, then so be it: it’s my horse, and I’ll beat it if I like.  See, when there’s no balance, a reader (like me) ends up not being drawn into the yarn that’s being spun; instead, we end up asking what all this fuss is about and whether or not it’s worth it.
 
So far, it ain’t.  
 
CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE (#02 of 04) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The script is adapted by Fred Van Lente; the artwork is done by Ariel Olivetti; with the letters provided by Richard Starkings & Comicraft.  For those of you who grew up on an island, this tale and Conan’s creation rests entirely on the shoulders of Robert E. Howard.  This issue bears the cover price of $3.50, and – as much as that matters – it’s a bargain available only to those who have it to spend: Dark Horse’s reputation for quality is second-to-none so far as this reader is concerned.
 
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  I’d add something more if I thought there was something further; however, CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE is a bit of a mess.  One more learned than I might chalk it up to some bad editorial choices, and perhaps therein lies the culprit.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE #02 of 04 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form contributed to my evaluation of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Sluggish Premiere To The Singular Cimmerian's Newest Tale]]>  
Let’s dissect, shall we?
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
From the book’s editorial page: “The king of Vendhya lies dying, victim of a ghastly curse placed up him by the dreaded Black Seers of Yimsha.  His sister, the devi Yasmina, watches over him still – but the kingdom already mourns his passing, for all his subjects know that he cannot live much longer …”
 
So begins this tale in the land of Vendhya … and, sadly, that’s pretty much where it stays for far too long.  Granted, every new adventure in the worlds of fantasy practically require a fair amount of set-up, but BLACK CIRCLE takes an awful lot of time setting so few characters in motion.  I get there in this days of old there was a great deal of pomp and circumstance associated to the impending passing of leaders, but scribe Fred Van Lente seems to be more interested in wringing every drop of sap from the syrup, setting an almost languid pace to these early panels.
 
To be fair, some of this could be because there is an awful lot of background Van Lente thought necessary to put this world together for newcomers, in which case I may not be the best critic to evaluate this particular Conan miniseries.  Given that I have more than a passing familiarity here, maybe I’m seeing too many stitches to these seams; however, I’m also willing to suggest that if I found it slow, so might the plebes.  For example, too much time is spent explaining the king’s personal history (it leads to one possible explanation for his current predicament).  By Page 10, I think everyone gets that the king isn’t long for this world … but didn’t we know that by the end of Page 1?  If not, certainly we did by Page 3!  I can only hope some of this exposition has greater meaning once this mini takes off.
 
Also, don’t most folks tune in to a Conan tale to see what Conan’s up to?  Unfortunately, the barbarian doesn’t appear officially until Page 15 (obviously, we see his form in the shadows), and, at this point, I was wondering if I had perchance picked up the wrong book.
 
If there’s any saving grace here, it’s that the artwork provided by Ariel Olivetti is pretty solid.  Lines are all clean, and there’s very little murk to these panels.  In fact, I’d venture to suggest that it didn’t need to come across so squeaky clean.  One of the enduring qualities of some of Conan’s more memorable tales is that some pages feel like living art on the page – they’re the kind of images I can see hanging up on the wall of some art gallery.  Even when Conan appears as his muscular self on Page 16, he looks like he just stepped from a bath.  Certainly, it doesn’t look as if he’s been recently ‘mixing it up’ with any bandits nor riding bareback across the countryside.
 
These are small gripes, indeed, but they do add up to some discomfort.  I can only hope this title improves (and improves quickly) in its narration with its second issue.
 
CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE (#01 of 04) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The script is adapted by Fred Van Lente; the artwork is done by Ariel Olivetti; with the letters provided by Richard Starkings & Comicraft.  For those of you who grew up on an island, this tale and Conan’s creation rests entirely on the shoulders of Robert E. Howard.  This issue bears the cover price of $3.50, and – as much as that matters – it’s a bargain available only to those who have it to spend: Dark Horse’s reputation for quality is second-to-none so far as this reader is concerned.
 
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  You’ll have to cut me some slack if I seem more than a bit less than enthusiastic with this initial chapter in the tale that’ll shape up to be CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE; but I thought this installment was a colossal misfire.  For starters, Conan doesn’t appear until halfway through the issue, and the massive amount of cultural set-up ends up feeling very paint-by-number by scribe Fred Van Lente.  Thankfully, Ariel Olivetti’s artwork is very solid; otherwise, I’d be less-than-optimistic that this adventure would be worth all of the effort.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE #01 of 04 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form contributed to my evaluation of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Indiana Conan And The Temple of Gloom!]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Finally, the Cimmerian has brought peace unto the lands of Aquilonia.  As our story opens, the barbarian and his army have taken control of the kingdom, wrenching it through bloodshed from those who would oppress an entire people into hopeless servitude.  Still, even as king Conan finds himself suffering a restless spirit, but it isn’t long before a sorceress comes a’calling.  With her, she brings word that his former love who suffered a tragic end – Belit – has not fully passed into a peaceful afterlife.  Of course, the mighty Nadina knows what must be done in order for this king’s queen to finally be at rest, and the man will stop at nothing to either see beloved into the beyond or expose the witch as the evil she may be.
 
So far as this volume – THE PHANTOMS OF THE BLACK COAST – goes, it’s a tale told obligatorily.  There’s really no grand pomp and circumstance to the entire affair; even the artwork feels a bit tired and grim.  Given the fact that matches Conan’s mood throughout much of this adventure, perhaps that’s exactly what novelist Victor Gischler intended artist Attila Futaki’s work to express.  Even if that is the case, would it be too much to ask for somebody to throw a light on these dark corners?
 
I’ve been trafficking in Conan’s graphic adventures off-and-on since the seventies, and, artistically, PHANTOMS certainly isn’t that far a cry from much of what’s been done before.  At this point, one wonders how any creative team can bring something new, something special to heads being cleaved from their shoulders or intestines being hacked from their abdomens.  It’s a bloody affair, indeed.  I can’t help but wonder why Conan’s mood never really ticked up even on the good days brought to life in these pages; perhaps he’s grown a bit too melancholy for his own good?
 
Furthermore, adaptations can be a tricky thing.  When one writer sticks too close to the material (as I can’t help but wonder if that’s what happened here), what ends up being accomplished serves the strengths and weaknesses of the original storyteller as opposed to highlighting something new being delivered unto a franchise.  Also, if one strays too far away from the source, then the audience is left wondering what happened to the character they’ve grown to love and admire.  I’d imagine a talent like Gischler would only be too happy to contribute to Conan’s expansive mythology, but an awful lot of this volume feels ‘phoned in.’  That isn’t intended as an insult – who wouldn’t want to have the ability to evoke classic Robert E. Howard tones? – rather it’s only a benign observation.
 
For all its narrative blemishes, quite a bit of PHANTOMS feels rushed.  Days are condensed into phrases like “Conan did X for days” (obviously paraphrasing there, folks), and several different characters even remark similar storytelling sentiments.  Who knows?  Maybe editing this entire affair into five issues was bound to strip some of the magic from a grand adventure; still, the way this one went it felt like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were turning Conan into a Hyborean Age ‘Indiana Jones’ … and that would be a horrific development.
 
CONAN: THE PHANTOMS OF THE BLACK COAST is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Victor Gischler (adapted from the work of Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard); the art is provided by Attila Futaki; the colors are by Jok Coglitore and J. Blanco; and the lettering is by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt.  This volume collects issues #1 through #5 previously published under the same name.  It’s all available for the low, low price of $19.99 … maybe that’s a bit steep for newcomers, but you can always try to pick one up secondhand if that’s easier to fit in your budget.
 
RECOMMENDED.  It may not be the greatest Conan tale Dark Horse has had the good graces to bring to life, but it’s still an admirable telling for anyone who follows the trials and tribulations of the world’s best known Cimmerian.  In fact, there’s plenty of stuff in there that makes it uniquely Conan – damsels and ne’er-do-wells alike; all I wish is that it flowed together as seamlessly as some other graphic collections I’ve had the good fortune to read.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN: THE PHANTOMS OF THE BLACK COAST by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Pretty Looking NOSFERATU WARS Is Less 'War' and More Skirmish Than Anything Else]]>  
Me?  I figure once around is good enough.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Tarquin and Moria are vampires deeply in love with one another, but it would seem that fate is forever conspiring to put distance between them.  Wanting nothing more than to enjoy wedded bliss, the two seek and receive an official ceremony, only to turn the tables on a man of the cloth in their dastardly deception.  Having broken some established ‘code’ of behavior, a vampire cabal rises against them, only to leave the lovely Moria no other course of action but to confront those who would punish them directly.  In doing so, she leaves Tarquin behind for – dare I say? – parts unknown.
 
Pardon the expression, but there’s very little substance to sink one’s teeth into with NOSFERATU WARS.  Sure, there are vampires aplenty as this tale is set apparently on the cusp of a plague in the Dark Ages, but everything else is all style, mind over real matter.  It all looks grand (whatever or whoever Menton3 is should be commended for imbuing this tale with some deliciously dark visuals), but, by the last page, it’s hard to tell if there’s more meant to follow (a postscript speech bubble implies Tarquin’s tale is only just beginning) or if this was meant to fill in a pothole to some other avenue.  The only one who knows is storyteller Steve Niles … and, so far as I’ve been able to find, he’s not saying.
 
As a one shot, I suppose it’s easy to conclude this is all well and good … but I found I tall a bit puzzling for reasons I won’t disclose as that would be too much of a spoiler.
 
Intrigued?
 
Then give it a read.  It’s certainly worth a look, if nothing else.
 
NOSFERATU WARS (One Shot) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Steve Niles; the art and cover are by Menton3; with letters provided by Nate Piekos of Blambot.  For those wanting to know a bit more, this one-shot collects four installments originally appearing in DARK HORSE PRESENTS #26-29.  It’s available for purchase for the low, low price of $3.99, a reasonable investment if noir-inspired vampire tales tickle your fancy.
 
RECOMMENDED if for no other reason than the sheer creepiness of it all.  NOSFERATU WARS is a one-shot that strongly hints at little more than set-up (i.e. the state of the world, the characters populating it, etc.), and I’ve no doubt that writer Steve Niles is either using this as a springboard to some greater story or filling in the background of some greater story that already exists.  Either way, it’s a vision sadly incomplete, making it hard to enthusiastically endorse on any other level.  Give it a go, if the dark and dreary world of vampires is in your wheelhouse, and maybe you can discern far more than I.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of NOSFERATU WARS (One Shot) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ The Stuff of Legends … Or Is It?]]>  
Not I, that’s for sure.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
In those frantic times following the destruction of the Imperial’s greatest weapon, the Death Star, the Rebels are understandably on-the-run.  No doubt, the Empire would’ve brought every available ship in the galaxy bearing down on the fourth moon of Yavin, so their evacuation was a necessity.  As an organization, Luke Skywalker’s success in shooting a torpedo down that small exhaust port probably brought more people into the Rebel fold … and that’s largely where STAR WARS: REBEL HEIST begins.  Our heroes are indeed scattered about the galaxy, and Han Solo has apparently been tasked with a very special, very secret mission which involves training a new recruit.
 
For better or for worse, that’s really all the story told in this first issue.
 
That certainly isn’t gangbusters in my estimation.  I’ve followed Dark Horse’s tales over the years, and there have been many better first installments than this one.  Quite a bit of the tale’s time is dedicated to ‘the stuff of legends’: Han Solo has become one (don’t forget how pivotal his efforts were in allowing Skywalker to do what he did in the big finish to STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE), so it’s entirely acceptable that any new recruit would look at him with glowing, adoring eyes.  While those sentiments are all well and good, it’s still a bit disappointing if not underwhelming that nothing of substance appears to unfold in these first pages, and that’s why I opened my review with the reminder: greatness is rarely found in humble beginnings but rather properly earned before the epic conclusion.
 
Solo certainly behaves as one would expect him to behave, though I thought there were a few uncharacteristic moments.  Did he learn nothing of running in with blasters blazing in A NEW HOPE?  Sure, we knew he preferred a fair fight, but that was before all of the ‘did he or didn’t he shoot first’ nonsense George Lucas unfortunately hoisted upon fandom.  (My take?  Of course, he shot first.)  And his faithful sidekick – the Wookie Chewbacca – is nowhere in sight, another disappointing development for any first chapter dealing with our lovable smuggler.
 
Still, if Dark Horse has taught me anything over the years it’s definitely don’t judge a book by its cover; so I’ll be here in 30 days to see what develops now that Han and this Rebel new-hire are really up-to-their-elbows in Imperial danger.  Who knows what’ll happen next?
 
STAR WARS: REBEL HEIST (Part 01 of 04) is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Matt Kindt; the pencils are provided by Marco Castiello; the inks are done by Dan Parsons; the colors are perfected by Gabe Eltaeb; with lettering from Michael Heisler.  All of this comes available to readers at the low, low prices of $3.50 an issue, and that’s still a bargain no matter where you go in the galaxy to get it.
 
RECOMMENDED.  It’s a slow start, but REBEL HEIST might end up being the stuff of legends?  It’s hard to say for sure as there’s so little to this as a first chapter in a four-part story.  What there is, however, is plenty of focus in the area of the Original Trilogy, the timeframe most STAR WARS fans identify with.  The Rebels are on the run, the Empire is on the move, and the Force may yet to strong with those who need it most.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: REBEL HEIST (Part 01 of 04) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Captain America shows them how its done.]]>  
Set a short time after The Avengers, Captain America finds himself working for Nick Furry and Shield, though he's conflicted about the organizations goals and tactics and finds himself butting heads with them as much as working with them. The Captain sees Shield as playing to people’s fears and taking advantage of that instead of protecting people’s freedom, and he seems to have a point. Shield plans to launch three new Helo Carriers with the ability to take out any human being in the planet easily, efficiently, and without putting any lives in danger to do so. Sound familiar? Captain America, being the boyscout that he is, disproves, but being the solider that he is doesn't know quite what to do about it. That all changes when The Winter Soldier, a super assassin on a vendetta against Shield, shows up and starts wreaking havoc. But who is this Winter Soldier, who does he work for, and what is their plan?
 
I guess the thing I love most about this movie is the way it morphs a standard super hero flick with a healthy touch of James Bond. This isn't your everyday gun ho action flick like we're used to from Marvel, and it’s also a far cry from the dreary, brooding recent DC adaptions we've had. Cap's punches a lot of guys in the face, sure, sure, but deep down in this movies heart it’s a spy flick through and through with a healthy dose of super humans and high tech weaponry. And you know what? I approve. Captain America fits perfectly in a movie like this and gets incredible support from Black Widow, Hawkman (not to be confused with Hawk Eye who, sadly, doesn't appear in this film) and Agent Robin Sparkles. Together with Nick Furry they make a hell of a team.
 
Along with having a great cast of hero's we're also treated to some great villains as well. Besides Loki Marvel villains... well, they're kind of lame. Let’s be honest, who here cares about Red Mask, or Dark Eldar, or Human Torch want to be's? Forgettable, one shot, lame villains the lot of them. Though The Winter Soldier himself was, I will admit, a bit of a disappointment once the mystery about him was stripped away, he's not the only one Cap's and company has to deal with. I'm not going to spoil anything for you but I will say the villains, and the threat they pose, are the best in the Marvel universe besides Loki himself.
 
Marvel has made some incredible movies. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and especially The Avengers were all fantastic films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier deserves to stand among these as one of their best. The action is just incredible, the characters and villains memorable, and it breathes life into the Captain America franchise. If you are a super hero fan, you owe it to yourself to see this film. You will not be disappointed.]]>
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<![CDATA[ This Is A Brilliant Adaptation, And It's My Personal Favorite of the DC Universe Original Movies]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
We’ve all been there, wishing we could’ve done something differently.  Which of us hasn’t wanted a chance to go back into the past if only to tweak some singular small event in order to offer us a greater chance at happiness in the present or the future?  The loss of a loved one cuts deeply enough to leave a scar that’ll last a lifetime, and that’s what Barry Allen decides he wants to fix about his past: he wants to be there to stop his mother from dying at the hands of some cruel assailant.  Because he’s The Flash – because he has the ability to maneuver in and out of the time stream – he decides to do just that … and, little did he know, he tears apart the very fabric of the DC Universe!
 
This is a brilliant tale, the kind of which didn’t used to exist when I started reading the monthlies back in the 1970’s.  Why?  Well, it’s necessarily dark, and it’s quite darker than most of the usual fare I’ve read in The Flash’s books.  In part, that’s because the greater entity – DC Comics – wanted to use this tale as a dramatic springboard with which to reboot their entire catalogue of heroes, villains, and superheroes.  In case you haven’t heard of it, DC rebooted its various worlds in 2012; while its may’ve been a source of new life for some books, I haven’t seen the rewards in others.
 
That story – FLASHPOINT – has now been adapted by the ongoing DC Universe Animated Original Movie lines, and – so far as this critic is concerned – they’ve done it justice.  All of the adult themes are there (mark my words: this is probably NOT one for the kids due to the heavy nature of violence and torture throughout), and, despite serving up the usual ‘slightly better than Saturday morning fare’ animation this one is draped in glorious somber tones and hues.
 
Still, there are some pieces of the overall story that don’t ‘mesh’ as well as they could, and I think that’s largely because this is essentially an 80-minute feature.  The time needed to plot out all of this so that it made perfect sense to newcomers would probably be more like an animated miniseries – suffice it to say, there’s a world war going on, but it’s primarily being waged by fallen superheroes and the minions they command; and, despite it being front-and-center in the conclusion, it really gets short shrift in the first half.  It gets introduced briskly with The Flash’s memories being changed so that he better understands this new universe he’s found himself a part of, and I think it could’ve been handled better than what we get here.
 
Time travel stories are pretty universal – even folks who don’t much care for sci-fi narratives tend to enjoy a good time-travel-yarn – so THE FLASHPOINT PARADOX is most definitely worth a view even by those who aren’t drawn to comic book properties.  There’s enough in here that gives the story greater depth as well (i.e. Barry’s desire to see his mom alive again; Thomas Wayne’s desire to give his son a second chance at life; Wonder Woman’s wishes to be free of a marriage she doesn’t want, etc.), and I think that there’s probably something for everyone.
 
But – and I’m only harping on this because I think it’s a realistic observation – this is NOT for kids.  It’s pretty grim.  It’s a very dark tale.  There’s an awful lot of violence, and it isn’t the usual comic-book-style; it’s graphic and at time disturbing … such as what happens to Barry Allen in this world when he tries to recreate the accident that made him who he was in the original world.  It’s rated PG-13, and I think even that’s mildly questionable in a few instances.  So consider yourself warned.
 
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Everything about this JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE FLASHPOINT PARADOX is superior, from the voice direction, the animation style, right down to the thematic elements.  This is miles and miles better than practically anything else being done in the direct-to-DVD market, and it’s the kind of story that probably appeals to old and new fans of DC’s titles alike.  I will say – and I stress this very emphatically – this is NOT a tale for children as some of the other DC flicks have been; the subject matter is necessarily dark and grim, and the level of corresponding violence is indeed quite high.  For mature comic’s fans like myself, this is a home run.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Exploring History]]> http://www.lunch.com/RealityInked/reviews/d/UserReview-Mr_Peabody_and_Sherman-362-1893756-245227-Exploring_History.html http://www.lunch.com/RealityInked/reviews/d/UserReview-Mr_Peabody_and_Sherman-362-1893756-245227-Exploring_History.html Tue, 25 Mar 2014 13:43:15 +0000 <![CDATA[ Red Sonja Is Down But She's Not Out for the Count]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
When we last saw Red Sonja, she was perfectly still, silenced from the throes of the plague that had ravaged her body; but the arrival of her twin benefactors managed to elevate her chi from the darkest thoughts.  It would seem that the king’s son has perhaps found a cure, and, if it isn’t too late, he may be able to save our beloved heroine.  The road to Patra will be treacherous – as even Sonja expects – but she’ll have her vengeance over Annisia if it’s the last thing she does.
 
This fourth chapter in this title’s relaunch manages to deliver a few surprises – not happy taking Sonja’s life, Annisia is now laying claim to the fallen warrior’s legacy; Annisia’s followers have begun to question their leader’s mental state; and an all-new flashback reveals the two women’s first encounter in the pits and in combat.  One might suspect at this point that scribe Gail Simone and her creative crew would’ve played all of their cards and simply be waiting for deliver a big finish; but thankfully they’ve demonstrated one more time that there are layers worth divulging in a right time and place when exploring this world and its various characters.
 
Still, it might be easy to dismiss some of this chapter’s smaller moments as a needed bit of theatrics.  A group of Annisia’s forces encounter the twins (Ayla and Nias) and Sonja on their return trip, giving the plague-stricken lady a chance to show that – even when afflicted – she still has the right stuff to snuff out evil in its tracks.  However, Simone has earned my faith – she’s exhibited tremendous poise in crafting this vision; she’s proven to be a gifted steward of this title and its eponymous She-devil – so I’m more than willing to cut her some slack to turn in some fisticuffs and well-staged bloodletting, letting artist Walter Geovani and the rest of the gang join in the occasion.
 
What matters here thematically is that Sonja is down but she’s far from out.  She’s already proven herself a force to be reckoned with, and now she’s itching to get back at what she does best.  I, for one, welcome the return to form … even if it spells greater doom (if that’s possible).
 
RED SONJA #4 (Ongoing) is published by Dynamite Entertainment.  The issue is written by Gail Simone; the art is drawn by Walter Geovani; the book is colored by Adriano Lucas; it is lettered by Simon Bowland; and the series is presently edited by Joseph Rybandt.  Individual issues bear the cover price of $3.99 … and that’s a bargain considering the depth, action, and characterization contained within.
 
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Simone and her crew continue to set-the-stage for an all-new version of RED SONJA.  It’s epic.  It’s heroic.  It’s the reason readers explore heroes.  Now that we’re in the home stretch for a legendary rematch, we’re sure to have the important questions answered and maybe even a few more raised so that this team can turn their attention at where these journeys may go next.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I’ve repeatedly contacted the fine folks at Dynamite Comics via email and their web site in hopes to arrange for reader copies of RED SONJA (Ongoing); however, the company apparently does not recognize nor cooperate with requests from new media outlets.
 ]]>
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<![CDATA[ LEGACY II 'Feels' Like The Original Trilogy]]>  
We’ve developed the ability to christen these works as ‘closet favorites.’  Others call them ‘guilty pleasures,’ almost in an attempt to dismiss any quality wrapped up in them or silently to beg forgiveness (in advance) for our liking something we know we shouldn’t.  For example, I’ve always loved FLASH GORDON (1980) for its cartoonish performances, drug-trip visuals, and high camp.  To worsen matters, I have absolutely no problem admitting to anyone how much I love it even though I’ve been cautioned by countless others that to do so only cheapens my reputation.
 
So enter STAR WARS: LEGACY II: VOLUME 1: PRISONER OF THE FLOATING WORLD.
 
Hell.  Being my usually cynical self, I ought to be spending quality bandwidth making fun of the obvious pomposity wrapped up in that inelegant title alone!  Using a word like ‘Legacy’ in anything practically implies that you – as a writer – have usurped whatever respectability belongs to an established property for your own selfish needs.  To me, it presupposes that you’re crying out for attention.  But it’s use here is only intended to distinguish itself thematically from some of the other STAR WARS work that’s come before in Dark Horse’s 20+ years with the license; these are the stories of those who come after those we know so well, and that’s all it’s meant to underscore.
 
Ania Solo is the great-great granddaughter of that intrepid smuggler of old (STAR WARS’ Han Solo) and his bride (Princess Leia Organa).  She is the ‘legacy’ at the center of this tale, and, while she doesn’t quite have Solo’s penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she’s definitely a close second.  She finds herself at the center of a galaxy-spanning effort to establish a kinda/sorta new-fangled alternative to the long-running Republic, a move requiring the participation of the new Jedi Knights.  And, of course, where there are Jedi, there are bound to be Sith.
 
Like the Prequel Trilogy, Legacy II is a return to an era of politics set within that galaxy far, far away; and I have to admit that there were elements of this that didn’t quite make as much sense as I suspect the creative crew intended.  As is often the case, this world continues to build on the greater STAR WARS mythology – as well as what became canon from the earlier Legacy I title – and, as a consequence, I think some of this can be healthily chalked up to ‘lost in translation.’  (I say ‘healthily’ because I don’t think anyone need run out, purchase all of the Legacy I books, and bone up on it.)  Thankfully, this is an adventure relying on briskness – there’s plenty of action and intrigue to distract from the greater political superstructure – and that pace lends itself pretty well to the narrative.
 
It also helps considerably that Ania feels like a natural successor of her great-great-granddaddy.  She’s spunky, and she flies by the seat-of-her-pants in much that way one might expect of anyone named Solo.  She traffics in salvage work (you’re telling me the Millennium Falcon wasn’t a scrapheap itself?), and she makes it up as she goes.  Clearly, she has no endgame in mind when she does what she does, and her particular brand of inventiveness also works within these covers.
 
As for the supporting players?
 
Well, because this is only a first arc to what will obviously be a greater story, I think it’s safe to say that Solo’s given the best screen time here with good reason.  Her immediate partner – Sauk (A Mon Calimari) – comes off as a bit of a rascally JarJar to me (not a good thing, but, like I said, it’s early).  AG-37 is an assassin droid (IG-88 style) who shows up partway into the tale, and, while he’s given a few moments of comic relief, he’s a welcome addition … think C-3PO with more than a touch of Jedi-style wisdom.  And the Jedis?  Well, they’re wrapped up in here largely because the plot as designed required it.  They have respectable Jedi moments, but none of them have the charisma of a Kenobi, a Ginn, or even a Yoda at this point.
 
What amazed me, though, when I had finished all of it is that – as I alluded to above – I kinda/sorta … liked it.  For the life of me, I can’t quite put my finger on why.  There’s a terrific vibe – an undercurrent – that serves this five-issue story.  It feels like it’s thematically closer to the spirit of the Original Trilogy, and because I found the action entirely accessible despite some confusion over certain times, places, and politics, it worked just fine in a single sitting.  Lastly, there are moments that strongly echo back to things that’ve occurred elsewhere in the STAR WARS’ universe.
 
Mind you, it has miles and miles to go before I’d ever put it on par with the films.  But as a first volume I found it enticing and interesting enough to maintain my interest.  Considering as much as I’ve read in this lifetime, let me say that that is no easy thing.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.]]>
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<![CDATA[ A Life Lived Comes Full Circle In RED SONJA #3]]>  
That’s what comes to mind when I dwell on Red Sonja, and, if issue #3 is any indication, Gail Simone agrees with me.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
When we last saw our heroine, she had done the unthinkable – she had surrendered to her former friend and colleague in death, Annisia, accepting the sentence carried down of her exile into the wilderness.  For Sonja had contracted the plague.  That she might perish, those she had briefly served would be allowed to live out their days in isolation.  Now, as she toils away what’s left of her time on the mortal plane, she’s troubled with visions.  Of her past.  Of her failures and of her victories.  At one time, she believed she had miles to go before she could rest, but as life fades from her afflicted body two friends emerge from the wild … but they might be too late.
 
In this third issue, Simone continues to demonstrate why the union between her and the red-headed She-devil is, perhaps, a match made in warrior heaven.  This whole arc began with Sonja being at her best; and now Simone has practically delivered her into the afterlife.  (I say ‘practically’ though the events here may make you fear differently.)  She’s served up a somewhat humiliated and broken soul as our lady suffers illusions of her past and a family she couldn’t save.  Granted, she hadn’t the skills or the experience to do differently, but – on the cusp of her death – she’s insistent on finally doing right by her father’s wishes and the teachings of her people.  She’s down but not out.  She’s surrendered, but the fight still lives in her heart, despite what she confesses to the vision that plague her.
 
This is what great drama does.  It takes a central character and puts him or her through their paces.  It doesn’t do it solely to serve up dramatic circumstances; rather, it does it because that’s the only way our protagonist can learn anything about the emotional baggage she carries in her heart and in her memories.  Sonja’s gone from the ultimate high to the ultimate low.  As she learns from these nightmares, she’s as guilty for her situation as is fate; thus, only now is she prepared to take that great and private journey into whatever waits for each of us on the other side.
 
And – to my pleasure – Simone serves all of this up rather dispassionately.  Using these visions as flashbacks, she introduces us into the Sonja we never really knew, in her early days trying to learn her place in the society to which she was born.  There isn’t all of the dark psychology that kinda/sorta goes hand-in-hand with some of the costumed vigilante tales that occupy so much of comic store shelves.  This is a young maiden who learned she was fast.  Good with a bow.  Cunning in the wild.  She doesn’t hate herself for who she was or what she becomes.  She accepts it, knowing that there’s nothing more to say on the matter.
 
The closing panels are a bit of doom and gloom, but I suspect this is a gifted author’s attempt to remind us of that age old adage: it’s always darkest … before the dawn.
 
RED SONJA #3 (Ongoing) is published by Dynamite Entertainment.  The issue is written by Gail Simone; the art is drawn by Walter Geovani; the book is colored by Adriano Lucas; it is lettered by Simon Bowland; and the series is presently edited by Joseph Rybandt.  Individual issues bear the cover price of $3.99 … and that’s a bargain considering the depth, action, and characterization contained within.
 
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  Fire and ice.  Fire and ice.  If you take nothing away from anything I’ve written here, then leave this space with what I said about how fire and ice define Red Sonja.  I think you’ll be as surprised as I was when I read it how well all of that comes together in these pages.  Yes, there’s the obligatory cliffhanger, but it’s the kind that only underscores how important you’re here again in thirty days.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I’ve repeatedly contacted the fine folks at Dynamite Comics via email and their web site in hopes to arrange for reader copies of RED SONJA #1 (Ongoing); however, the company apparently does not recognize nor cooperate with requests from new media outlets.
 ]]>
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<![CDATA[ Curiously Flat STAR WARS Tale Feels Like An All-Too-Obvious Retread]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
The real business of building a Galactic Empire truly took place in those fitful days following the events depicting cinematically in STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH.  That’s when Darth Vader – at Emperor Palpatine’s behest – went about the thuggish business of bringing rebellious star systems under Imperial control.  In the process, Vader naturally broke a few eggs – meaning to say that he killed innocent people in order to instill fear – and it’s this fertile time that Tim Siedell and his creative crew seek to mine in DARTH VADER AND THE NINTH ASSASSIN.
 
Essentially, the story boils down to these elements:
A.     Vader kills a powerful businessman’s son, and that father wants his vengeance.
B.     Said angry dad hires his very own lethal assassin to put Vader six feet under.
C.     Eight failed attempts later, said angry dad finally finds a ‘Ninth Assassin’ who just may be up to the task (hence the miniseries’ title).
D.     Vader and the Ninth Assassin play a game of galaxy-wide cat-and-mouse, attempting to bring all of this to closure in five issues.
 
I guess there’s nothing wrong with the idea of plunking a lumbering menace like Vader into the unlikely position of conducting a police procedural – which is basically how a large chunk of NINTH ASSASSIN plays to the audience – but what Siedell accomplishes here is a very far cry from anything that could be called “Vader, P.I.”  This largely nameless assassin crafts a compelling idea – he needs to get the Dark Lord out of his element and into foreign territory, away from the Empire’s prying eyes, where the deed can be done in quiet; so he hatches a plot to imperil the Emperor (or so we’re lead to believe).  Unfortunately, for all of the man’s cunning, more time is spent with this somewhat goofy subplot – there’s a secret cult on a distant deserted world that somehow has foreseen Vader’s rise to power (it’s never quite clear, but, in the end, comes off more as a fabrication than anything else).  When the two finally go mano-a-mano for the big finish (or what seems like a big finish), it’s a surprisingly short and ineffectual showdown, so much so one wonders what so much ado was about.
 
The artwork is perpetually appealing, as is the case with most of Dark Horse’s forays in the galaxy far, far away, which only underscores why this NINTH ASSASSIN is little more than a one-time affair.
 
STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE NINTH ASSASSIN is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The script is written by Tim Siedell; the pencils are done by Stephen Thompson and Ivan Fernandez; the inks have been provided by Mark Irwin, Denis Freitas, Drew Geraci, and Jason Gorder; the colors have been done by Michael Atiyeh; and the lettering was completed by Michael Heisler.  As you well should know by now, STAR WARS is the creation of George Lucas.  The volume collects individual issues previously published in five installments, and all of this comes with a cover price of $24.99 (USA).
 
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED.  Meh.  As much as I liked some of the elements leading into DARTH VADER AND THE NINTH ASSASSIN, where it eventually took readers was through a web of ideas and themes that have already been amply explored in the vast STAR WARS Universe.  Yeah, we know Palpatine is always pulling Vader’s strings.  Yeah, we know that Vader is always looking for another way to please his master.  If the only tweak you can bring to the material is that you posit the Dark Lord into a set of circumstances that require him to behave like Sherlock Holmes, then maybe the tale isn’t one worth exploring further after all.  It’s fine for a one-off read; trust me when I conclude it has virtually zero re-read quality.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE NINTH ASSASSIN by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Outstanding Character Crises Pushes RED SONJA Toward New Horizons]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
When we last saw Red Sonja, she was marching into battle with a motley band of villagers she had trained at Dimath’s request when – lo and behold – the very general she’s leading those people against turned out to be someone very near and very dear to her.  Her name is Annisia, and their friendship was forged not only in the battles they previously shared but also in their imprisonment in a cruel fate from their past.  As readers learned (via helpful flashbacks), Sonja and Annisia spend years side-by-side in a dungeon, growing to know and understand what little comfort they could from one another’s company, until they found themselves freed from those shackles and sent on their separate ways.  Now they’ve been reunited under the cruelest circumstances imaginable as Sonja learns that Annisia believes herself haunted by the souls that they’ve slaughtered before!
 
What Gail Simone has accomplished in only a scant two issues of this new incarnation of RED SONJA has a wondrously epic feel to it but also an interesting personal dynamic that perhaps I, as a reader, never expected.  Here I’m presented with two Amazonian warriors – both equally committed to the task of dispensing their respective forms of justice and punishment – and they come together to clash in ways both physical and psychological.  While it’s clear that Simone knows her audience will always root for Sonja, the writer doesn’t skimp on Annisia’s characterization, presenting a combatant who possesses equal cunning, equal physical prowess, as well as a compelling reason to wish her well.  You can feel emotions being toyed with in such a way so as to lower your guard … only to be prepared for yet one more twist in the story that’ll likely change how you think of it going forward into the next segment.
 
Walter Geovani’s artwork – both the first issue and this second one have maxed out on battle scenes, though nothing has been even remotely as gratuitous as one might expect from male-dominated titles – is solid, with men and women rendered in crisp, clean lines; Adriano Lucas supplies some wonderful colors, but, by the issue’s end, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were a bit too much brightness to the palate here.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for easily identifiable panels and action.  Still, there’s something to be said for the nuance of darker, gloomier colors (especially given developments here), and maybe that’ll change given the supplied cliffhanger to this read.
 
Dare I also mention, there’s the hint of a somewhat desired yet illicit romance between the two warrior women?  That thought alone will drive male fandom (and probably some women) crazy waiting for its potential resolution.  As can happen in some relationships, there’s an overwhelming sense of ‘resignation’ to all of it – maybe it just wasn’t meant to be – and that takes on even stronger meaning as Red Sonja prepares for what may be her most treacherous personal trial yet.
 
RED SONJA #2 (Ongoing) is published by Dynamite Entertainment.  The issue is written by Gail Simone; the art is drawn by Walter Geovani; the book is colored by Adriano Lucas; it is lettered by Simon Bowland; and the series is presently edited by Joseph Rybandt.  Individual issues bear the cover price of $3.99 … and that’s a bargain considering the depth, action, and characterization contained within.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Simone has dished up RED SONJA as not only the usual mover and shaker of her own adventures but also – particular in this second issue – as a victim to a very cruel twist of fate.  Unlike other heroes, we know our faithful heroine won’t take the news lying down (or will she?).  This elevates SONJA to the level of must-read at least for the near future as the character comes alive with all-new development as well as a growing cast of supporting players who hopefully might hang around for the duration.  It’s a wild ride, and there’s no better time to jump aboard than the present.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I’ve repeatedly contacted the fine folks at Dynamite Comics via email and their web site in hopes to arrange for reader copies of RED SONJA #1 (Ongoing); however, the company apparently does not recognize nor cooperate with requests from new media outlets.
 ]]>
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<![CDATA[ Dejah Thoris Is Lovely Enough To Eat! Eat Alive, That Is!]]>  
I’m no expert on such matters, but now that the action has switched from the Martian plains to the arctic wastelands, isn’t she gonna catch cold?
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
When we last saw our Princess of Barsoom, she had been captured by some sky pirates and hauled away from her fellow tribesmen.  As this issue opens, we see that she’s been strung up to a thick pole, and she’s being harshly interrogated about what she and her people are looking for in the Arctic wastelands.  The pirate lead – a lovely ‘black’ known as Phondari – finds her ship in hot pursuit from yet another largely pirate ship, and, despite their best efforts after even joining forces with Thoris, they’re all captured by an even surlier brute – a hulking menace known as Xen Brega.  It would seem that Phondari and Xen have previous history – the women fled his service, and he’s been pursuing her ever since – and things take a grim turn when he announces that he’ll have her and Thoris sent to the galley … to be prepared as his next meal!
 
Much like so much of what’s come before, WARLORD OF MARS: DEJAH THORIS #7 essentially excels are maintaining its high camp sensibilities.  While the circumstances are dire for the characters, I don’t honestly believe scribe Arvid Nelson wants his readers to take any much less all of this with great seriousness.  It has a deliriously demented feel to it some of the times, and it’s all plotted out with a kind of space-swashbuckling charm … pirates, included.
 
Those who tune in for their monthly regimen of near-porn (seriously, Dejah Thoris wears next to nothing in this incarnation) have a little something extra to get excited about in this chapter: Phondari – the sky pirate who takes our beloved Dejah hostage – is equally … erm … shall we say ‘endowed’?  She appears essentially in the same style as the princess; perhaps they’ve both shopped from the same catalog? 
 
WARLORD OF MARS: DEJAH THORIS #7 is published by Dynamite Entertainment.  The story is written by Arvid Nelson; the tale is illustrated by Carlos Rafael; the work is colored by Carlos Lopez; while the book is lettered by Marshall Dillon; and all of this is naturally based on the works of the master, Edgar Rice Burroughs.  It’s available for a cover price of $3.99, a bargain if you can get it.
 
RECOMMENDED.  While I didn’t find it as fun-loving as the last issue, so very much of DEJAH THORIS #7 continues serving up the same spirit and kitsch the title has become known for.  It helps to think of it as being thematically similar to 1980’s camp classic FLASH GORDON but with way more midriffs.  As I’ve counseled all along, there’s really nothing wrong with that per se; it’s just that as much as I love gawking at luscious ladies I still don’t feel there’s anything wrong with giving Dejah a shawl every now and then.  Otherwise, some panels feel downright dirty, bordering on pornographic.  If that makes me an old fuddy-duddy, then so be it.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I’ve repeatedly contacted the fine folks at Dynamite Comics in hopes to arrange for reader copies of WARLORD OF MARS: DEJAH THORIS; however, the company apparently does not recognize nor cooperate with requests from new media outlets.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Grim & Gritty, X Is A Perfect Vigilante Tale!]]>  
Now that the first arc is available in a trade paperback format, get ready for both barrels.
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
The city of Arcadia hasn’t so much fallen on to hard times: it’s crashed, burned, and is smoldering in its own ashes.  Crime has picked the city clean, and what morsels of wealth and power are left only attract the vilest filth imaginable.  Scum like Mr. Berkshire will strip the place clean, feeding his illicit machine so long as there are crumbs worth scavenging.  However, X has returned from the city’s dark past – a masked, one-eyed crimefighter who necessarily operates outside the restrictions of the legal system – and when a muckraking cyber-reporter draws the attention of the criminal elite, the man will join forces with her in order to see a bloody reign of terror brought to a fitting end.
 
So far as this reviewer is concerned, X is the ultimately vigilante read.  Just to be perfectly clear, Batman will always (for personal reasons) be my individual favorite monthly read – with Superman being a very close second – but when I want my fill of over-the-top, theatrical violence, I happily turn to X.  He’s part Dirty Harry, part samurai, part Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH, part Snake Plissken, all wrapped up into the total badass package.  He’s an unstoppable killing machine who shows up crawling out the darkness behind you when you least expect it.  As frightening as he is, he’s precisely the kind of monster you’d want on your side should the chips go down.
 
Duane Swierczynski’s take on X might be one of the single greatest re-imaginings this forty-year-comic-book veteran has ever seen.  There’s a kind of organic chemistry to all of it – one part violence plus one part redemption equals nothing but quality reading – and it’s all been concocted in such a way that one simply can’t wait for the next chapter in the man’s brutal full-frontal assault on the big city’s underworld.  Arcadia might be dead, but, so long as there is breath in X, he’ll be fighting for its resurrection.
 
All praise aside, I have to say that I honestly didn’t much care for the appearance of a kinda/sorta sidekick to this seminal slugger.  I have nothing wrong with Leigh – as a character, she’s just fine for most of the purposes she served – but I find it very hard (almost inconceivable) to believe that X would take her under his wing so easily, bringing her in so close so that she can be a yin to his yang.  In X’s world, there’s no need for a reporter.  But I suppose as it looks like she’s put down roots I’ll just have to see what develops.  So long as it doesn’t bud into anything resembling love, I might be able to swallow that dirty pill.
 
X – VOLUME 1: BIG BAD is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Duane Swierczynski; the art is provided by Eric Nguyen; the colors are by michelle Madsen; with lettering done up by Richard Starkings and Comicraft.  This volume collects the story previously published individually as Chapters 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4.  Lastly, this collection includes a handful of sketches as a postscript which shows the various versions of character profiles of those featured within the covers.  This collection bears the cover price of $14.99, and, yes, that’s a bargain if this kind of gloriously gory material is your cup of tea.
 
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.  You might wanna leave your stomachs at home, kiddies, because this first volume of X’s triumphant return is likely to leave you tossin’ your cookies if hardcore blood, guts, and violence isn’t to your liking.  X is the ultimate masked vigilante who’ll stop at nothing to rid what’s left of his fair city of the scum who’ve robbed it deaf, dumb, and blind.  Despite being shackled with a bit of a know-it-all sidekick in this incarnation, he’s still punishing evil the way evil is best left: stone cold dead unless it’s barely breathin’.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of X – VOLUME 1: BIG BAD by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Bland Reboot Lacks The Visual Distinctiveness Befitting Ms. Croft]]>  
Want to know more?  Stay tuned after this brief qualifier …
 
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoiler necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Lara Croft knows something is wrong.  She can sense it.  That, and she’s been having these nightmares about her impending doom.  Something has gone horribly wrong, and, unless she can put the pieces of her dreams together in a way that makes perfect sense, she and her friends are likely to suffer some horrible consequences.  As it turns out, she isn’t the only one being plagued by these visions.  When she tries to help an old friend Jonah from his own haunting experiences, she’s nearly washed away for her good deed!  (Trust me: the pun will make perfect sense if you read the book.)
 
When you think about characters that come and go from pop culture, Lara Croft is fairly new to the game.  She’s only been around for a few decades, but, in the time, she’s certainly made a name for herself.  She’s had video games and books about her.  She’s also had a relatively successful run in the comic books.  And there have even been a few blockbuster-style motion pictures exploring her mythology and her adventures.  She definitely appears to have ‘staying power’ (as the executives say), so it’s only fitting that someone give her some more time to gain an even stronger foothold with audiences.
 
As for the latest comic book, novelist Gail Simone certainly knows a thing or two about crafting stories for dynamic female leads.  She’s cut her teeth on Wonder Woman and Red Sonja, so one might expect more than gets delivered in this opening installment.  There’s a terrific theatrical-style action sequence that opens the story – let’s say it involves gunplay and a wrecked airplane teetering perilously from the top of a mountainous waterfall – but, sadly, the action pretty much starts and ends right there.  To be fair, there’s also a great sequence which closes out the issue, but it’s all delivered with too many unanswered questions for it to logically make much literal sense.  The rest of the book is dedicated to establishing this world with Croft and her allies, and perhaps it’s that curious absence of a true villain or any overwhelming quest that leaves me feeling a bit underfed.
 
Some of this lukewarm reception might be because artistically what Simone and artist Nicolas Daniel Selma have done is a bit of a deviation from what’s come before.  Without putting too fine a point on it, the previous incarnations of Croft have been as much about her female attributes to some degree as they’ve been about anything; her assets were always drawn up with God-like inspiration, making her a lusciously endowed Amazonian made further appealing to fanboys by her Librarianeque spectacles.  Big boobs.  Tight pants.  Tighter t-shirt.  These were the norms for her time, and they’ve been left in the dust as it were in this new creation which clearly reaches for toned-down sexiness via toned-up arms.  Unfortunately, the accompanying artwork here is largely blasé, allowing the heroine to kinda/sorta blend in with the background, and that’s never good for the lead to do.  You want her to stand out – one might argue that was in part why game designers practically satirized those feminine assets to a degree – but here?  Why Lara Croft could be the girl next door … well, if the girl next door makes good use of her LA Fitness membership.
 
For what it’s worth, I honestly didn’t much care for the Croft movies.  (I personally thought not only was Angelina Jolie all wrong for the part but also the stories just didn’t seem to ‘understand’ the potential of a kinda/sorta female version of Indiana Jones.)  It just seemed to me that, as a character, she wasn’t so much explored the way she should’ve been, and perhaps that was what happens when you cast a high-profile actress to play the heroine.  (It all ends up being more about Jolie and less about the work.)  I couldn’t say beans about the games, other than I know they’re out there, and they’ve definitely inspired a whole generation of cosplayers to go spelunking for some awesome selfies.
 
TOMB RAIDER #01 is published by Dark Horse Comics.  The story is written by Gail Simone; the pencils are by Nicolas Daniel Selma; the inks are by Juan Gedeon; with lettering by Michael Heisler.  It all comes with a cover price of $3.50, and that’s not bad for what you get in return.
 
RECOMMENDED.  While it’s missing some of Croft’s traditional appeal – as well as an easily identifiable villain – TOMB RAIDER #01 isn’t what I’d call anything resembling a disaster.  Instead, it feels like Simone and her crew are taking their sweet time to draw some distinctions between what’s come before as well as the direction they’re heading in artistically.  You’ve heard the phrase, “This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile”?  Well, this isn’t your father’s Lara Croft.  (Or maybe, given the youth of the franchise, I should better say, “This isn’t your big brother’s Lara Croft.”)  This is a new era, a new beginning, one where she gets looser t-shirts and khaki Capris.  There are strong hints as to where Simone may take us, but much of this is rendered so blandly (colors are a wash, and only the action sequences truly feel lifelike here) it’s really difficult to get excited about any of it.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of TOMB RAIDER #01 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Could Darth Vader Have Made A Grave Error?]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
Clone Trooper CT-5539 – better known as Hock Malsuum – has already seen some miserable things in his short, cloned life, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing to serve the Empire.  However, when he sees a crushing military defeat in the offing, he quickly continues as the dutiful soldier and tries to make command aware of it.  They won’t listen, and he ends up being hauled before Emperor Palpatine himself to explain why the battle turned the way it did.  In doing so, he may’ve earned the ultimate respect of Lord Vader himself!
 
Could it be that Darth Vader – the towering menace most in the galaxy know as the true might of the Galactic Empire – could it be that he’s made mistakes?
 
From a narrative point, all of us know (spoilers!) that Anakin Skywalker made one.  In fact, he made a huge mistake.  Galaxy-spanning mistake.  The kind of mistake you really can’t take back.  That’s why some of us take issue with George Lucas’s re-imagined ‘Special Edition’ ending to RETURN OF THE JEDI; after all of the evil Anakin trafficked in, can he truly be so easily forgiven and embraced by the Light Side of the Force?  It isn’t about forgiveness as some might have you believe; rather, it’s about what’s “right” in the universe, and I’m off that mindset that says Vader only deserves forgiveness from his family, not from the greater galaxy-at-large or whatever lies waiting beyond this world in this Force-friendly afterlife.
 
But I digress …
 
What makes CRY OF SHADOWS such a compelling story worth following this issue is the fact that the audience learns that Vader isn’t above it all much the way he appears at the onset of A NEW HOPE.  This Vader – the one unfolding in these pages specifically in front of the eyes of a clone designated CT-5539 or ‘Hock’ – is fallible.  He can choose poorly.  He can make a downright wrong decision.  Not a bad decision.  But a W-R-O-N-G decision.
 
As this story continues to unfold, perhaps Hock and the readers will learn otherwise.  Maybe the Dark Lord had something greater in his mind when he made this fateful choice?  Perhaps he’d seen something in his various meditations with the Dark Side that instructed him to deliberately choose poorly, to intentionally bring about such a public, humiliating defeat?  Until we do, what scribe Tim Siedell and his crew have done here is served up a small moment that redefines Vader as we’ve come to know him.  He isn’t all machine after all.  There’s a man beneath all of those components and that armor.  And that man – like any of us – might make a boneheaded decision that’ll cost him dearly some day … despite the fact that Anakin Skywalker already did.
 
Excellent issue.  Not perfect.  But it certainly gives readers something to think about.
 
STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS #3 is published by Dark Horse Comics, and – only for those of you who may’ve grown up on an island – STAR WARS was created by George Lucas.  The story is written by Tim Siedell; the art is by Gabriel Guzman; the colors are by Michael Atiyeh; and the lettering is by Michael Heisler.  The story is set during “The Rise of the Empire” era of history, which (for movie fans) is the period after the Prequel Trilogy and before the Original Trilogy.  The issue comes with the cover price of $3.50, payable in Old Republic credits.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  As one who has been reading comic books for over forty years, let me tell you that it’s the little things that make a big story work.  You can have a high-concept idea or even high-profile guest stars all you like, but if the creative crew doesn’t know beans about putting them together in such a way as to make the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tale work, then you fundamentally have nothing.  While some might dismiss this third installment of DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS for taking too much time to make its central point, I’d point out that those critics are missing all of the stellar smaller moments – an opening panel of utter decimation; a lone, imperious Vader standing on an Imperial bridge; and how that moment gets contrasted with Vader (near the tale’s end) standing somewhat powerlessly before the Emperor and other cronies at his side.  The devil is in the details, and this third issue has some terrific detail worth notice.
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS (#3) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]>
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<![CDATA[ Disappointing Second Issue Does Little More Than Build On The Ideas of the First]]>  
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
 
When we last saw Clone Trooper CT-5539, he was rather unceremoniously being left for dead by the Jedi on a distant planet offering little hope for survival much less rescue.  When we join him in this issue, he’s pretty much in the same place, coming to terms with the fact that he’s dying slowly.  But ‘dying’ does not mean he’s given up on the good fight, and readers learn precisely why the Kaminoans worked so hard to engineer genetic survivors, of which CT-5539 is quality stock.  He’s given himself a name – Hock – and, despite the odds, he’s about to be found.  Not only that, but he’s on the path for his exploits to draw the attention of a certain Dark Lord of the Sith.  Where such attention might lead is only beginning!
 
This second installment in THE CRY OF SHADOWS is basically still expanding on the premise as laid out in the first issue, introducing readers to a clone with his own measure of character.  In all circumstances, Hock refuses surrender.  Whether it be a pack of wild wolf-like creatures or whether it be bending to the will of fallen Jedi, he’s forever a soldier hell-bent on being the best that he can be.  It’s this dedication to service that captures Vader’s eye so well; perhaps the Dark Lord sees a bit of himself in the wounded soul.
 
Also, SHADOWS is deft at tinkering with the audience’s expectations.  In the Original Trilogy, STAR WARS showed us a world where Stormtroopers were so similar to one another even a captive Princess Leia thought it odd that a short one showed up to rescue her.  Making them faceless under such non-descript armor only further enhanced their conformity to a genetic ideal.  The Prequel Trilogy pretty much side-stepped any thematic discussion of real merit regarding the development of an entire race to basically serve as slaves to a galactic government, and I’m thrilled that Dark Horse has picked up on these ideas.  It’s clear that there’s still life screaming to rise up and be something: not only do we witness Hock’s desire to be greater than the sum of his parts, but he recounts the story of another – Kaddak.  Granted, Kaddak’s story is only a vignette here, but I can’t help but wonder what role this demented and depraved ‘aberration’ may yet play in the tale.
 
If anything, I could quibble with SHADOWS over some of its artistic choices.  Some of the artwork is far too ‘clean’ and ‘bright’ for my particular tastes, especially given the grim and foreboding subject matter driving the main plot.  Both Hock and Kaddak’s struggles are meant to defy the genetic status quo – clearly, both are crying out to be more than what these societies have in store for them – and both are reduced to scratching notches on their respective walls to count out their days.  But without knowing where all of this is heading that gripe may end up being a bit premature: I’ll let you know when it’s all over.
 
STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS #2 is published by Dark Horse Comics, and – only for those of you who may’ve grown up on an island – STAR WARS was created by George Lucas.  The story is written by Tim Siedell; the art is by Gabriel Guzman; the colors are by Michael Atiyeh; and the lettering is by Michael Heisler.  The story is set during “The Rise of the Empire” era of history, which (for movie fans) is the period after the Prequel Trilogy and before the Original Trilogy.  The issue comes with the cover price of $3.50, payable in Old Republic credits.
 
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Scribe Tim Siedell uses deceptively lean prose to craft a clone at odds with his world (perhaps even his entire existence) in STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS.  At its core, the story is little more than a coming-of-age narrative centered on the most unusual individual (if a clone can ever really be considered anything resembling “an individual”) but where you’d expect to get pimples and cliques and social awkwardness you get a man growing not only more adept at being a killing machine but also impressing the ultimate killer (Darth Vader) in the process.  The artwork is surprisingly bright for such a grim subject, but perhaps that’s exactly what Siedell wants you to think: there’s no way to know for sure until all is said and done!
 
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of STAR WARS: DARTH VADER AND THE CRY OF SHADOWS (Part 02) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.]]>
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