Who’s That Unmasked Woman? - A Review of Alias, written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Michael Gaydos

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Alias (2001) #23, cover by David Mack.

It’s simultaneously frustratingly difficult and ridiculously easy to find new, exciting ground to explore when it comes to superheroes. Popular comic book publisher Marvel has explored every origin story from scientific experiments gone wrong and mutated genes to gods on Earth and super soldier serums. What about the characters who are granted superpowers and find the life of superheroics just isn’t for them? This is the question Brian Michael Bendis tackles with Jessica Jones in Alias, which originally debuted under Marvel’s MAX imprint in 2001. It’s also been adapted into a Netflix show, which premiered in 2015.

Alias is the story of Jessica Jones, a one-time superhero who went by the codename Jewel. After being kidnapped and psychologically tortured by mind-controlling Zebediah Killgrave, also known as The Purple Man, Jessica hangs up her costume and opens Alias Investigations. Rather than starting with either of Jessica’s origin stories (her start as a superhero or her start as a detective), Bendis instead jumps the series off with Jessica flinging an unruly client through a door window. This is the perfect intro to Jessica and her world.

That time Jessica had a heart-to-heart with Captain America.

From there, the narrative is built from several different cases that Jessica takes on. A woman goes missing, and Jessica finds herself involved in conspiracy. A missing young girl and possible mutant is wanted back in her small town home. Jessica finds a disoriented Spider-Woman (Mattie Franklin) in her bathroom. The Purple Man returns. Jessica handles it all with a little help from the bottle and a few visits to (and from) The Avengers.

This book simply sings in gritty five-part harmony. Rather than go large scale and put the entire city, world or universe in peril, Bendis brings the story down to the cracked and crime-riddled streets of New York City. I enjoyed how small blips of standard superheroics were scattered about in panel backgrounds with small details like an Avengers hotline. I also liked the generous amount of text on the page and how Bendis captured the nuances of how people talk, such as pauses and scrambling to find the right words and phrases. The panel arrangement makes great use of the page and became almost like a signature of the story.

Purple reign.

As for the parts I felt could have been done better, the way the Purple Man/Killgrave storyline wrapped up left a bit to be desired. I won’t ruin anything, but I will say that Killgrave was set up to be a menacing character and a huge part of why Jessica is the way she is when we first meet her. I didn’t expect a knock-down, drag-out fight across the city that leveled buildings and left titanic craters in the pavement, as that wouldn’t have matched the story’s tone. That said, I do prefer a more fleshed out resolution. Then again, I guess the TV show took care of that.

So how does the TV show compare to the comic book series? Krysten Ritter does a fantastic job of balancing the grit, vulnerability and smarts of Jessica Jones. One thing I like more about the comic book is how The Avengers and a few other aspects of the Marvel universe are sprinkled throughout the narrative. It would be great to see Ant-Man and Jessica go on a date, or Black Widow come to Jessica for help tracking down a criminal organization. But who knows how the MCU and Marvel Netflix shows may change in the future?

Jessica’s version of afterglow.

One interesting tidbit I learned about Alias while preparing this review is an interracial sex scene between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones was deemed “offensive content” for Marvel’s then-printer in Alabama (my home state). Bear in mind that the scene isn’t overtly graphic and doesn’t go on for several pages (only five total panels). It’s important to note the panels suggest anal sex, which may have been what the original printers took issue with. While the creative team could have changed the suggestive pose, Marvel instead switched to Canadian printer Quebecor Printing, which has since become a major publisher for big comic book companies. I can see why Bendis and the others didn’t budge to appease the original printer, as the position and the suggestion it makes provide the reader with a deeper insight into Jessica’s personality and how she operates as a character. She’s anything but vanilla in more ways than one.

Alias makes for the perfect break from typical superhero stories, and it’s a great pick for those who’d like to see a different side of Marvel. This was my first time reading the famous/infamous (depending on who you ask) Brian Michael Bendis, and I can say I’ll be open to picking up anything else he writes, no matter what alias he uses.

Page Length: 720 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Absolutely buy new (look into the Ultimate Collection Books 1 and 2 if the hardback omnibus version is out of your price range)

Cover of Luisa: Now and Then.

Next Up: Luisa: Now and Then, drawn by Carole Maurel and translated from French by Mariko Tamaki. Much like Alex Robinson’s Too Cool to be Forgotten, Luisa is the story of adult Luisa coming face-to-face with a younger, queerer version of herself. Find out how the Paris setting, gender switch (in character and in writer) and queer main character differentiate from Robinson’s exploration of the same concept.

Bitcoin Dreadfuls - A Review of Modern Dread, compiled by Ryan Fassett and Pat Shand

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Modern Dread (2018), cover by Mike Capprotti.

While I’m not the biggest horror fan, I do enjoy being creeped out and horrified in a way that clings to me and slithers over my skin for days to come, leaving me looking over my shoulder and calling on Jesus like my mama taught me. I’ve never read a horror comic before, but Modern Dread is certainly a solid introduction. Created by a variety of artists and writers, including Ryan Fassett and Pat Shand, Modern Dread is a modern graphic novelette take on Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Originally a Kickstarter project, Modern Dread taps into current-day anxieties and fears to give readers something new to lose sleep over. You know, other than worrying if you have enough in savings to cover a medical emergency, if you’ll ever find someone who truly understands you, and how HBO plans on wrapping up Game of Thrones. The result is seven vignettes that explore everything from demonic tattoos to internet trolls who invade our homes. The stories are told by five friends (and one houseguest) who gather for a classic horror movie night but end up sharing their own original horror stories.

A horrific wake-up call. A page from Alone At Night by Ryan Fassett & Chandra Free.

Besides tattoos and internet trolls, Modern Dread also explores the risks of using ridesharing services that extend beyond assault and having a horrible driver. A story titled “What You Need” explores the sometimes-thin line between harmful, addictive drugs that can lead to regret and medication that can help us live our best lives. Just as some classic horror movies have held up rather well by focusing on universal themes and eternal anxieties, I have a feeling the tales in this particular anthology will stand the test of time for quite a while, tapping into dread that’s likely to linger with the human race for decades to come. I’m already thinking about future horror stories involving robots/androids programmed by disabled serial killers and bionic limbs infected with techno viral-demons.

I really enjoyed how Pat and Ryan nailed modern vernacular in the continuing narrative between stories. Even though I truly dig the deep, opulent dialogue in shows like Penny Dreadful and Hannibal, I also appreciate writers who give us characters who speak like someone we might interact with on the street, and that’s exactly what we’ve got here. I also liked how each story had a different artist, something I felt was a great way to get inside each storyteller’s head and experience the story from her unique perspective.

Car trouble. A page from Caught On the Web by Ryan Lynch & Fabio Ramacci.

I will say that not all the stories were direct hits for me. There were moments when I felt the narrative territory had been explored time and time again and didn’t give me anything new to chew on. That said, I do feel a majority of the stories delivered on the thrills and chills.

Don’t feed the trolls. A page from The Comments Section by Katie Tuohy, Pat Shand, & Olivia Pelaez.

Even though Modern Dread is a quick read (hence the short review), it gives you a lot to think about and explore long after you’ve finished. Whether all that contemplating is good or bad is entirely up to you. While focusing on the positive is great for your mental health, it’s sometimes nice to look down at the old demons we’ve risen above. Let’s just hope they haven’t made any new friends and grown wings while we weren’t looking.

Page Length: 72 pgs 

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy new...if you dare

Alias (2001) #23, cover by David Mack.

Next Up: Alias, by Brian Michael Bendis, the story of Marvel one-time-superhero turned-detective, Jessica Jones. It’s got purple men, high school drama, and dates with an Avenger. How does the Netflix show stack up to the original work? Find out next month!

That One Time Crime (and James Gunn) Shut up and Took a Long, Hard Look at Itself - A Review of Super, Directed by James Gunn

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Crimson Bolt in all his glory.

When it comes to the superhero genre, there’s a paradox of there being similar origin stories told over and over again with minor tweaks standing alongside a limitless glut of ways to explore untread ground. James Gunn’s Super (released in 2010) embraces both sides of that paradox but, like its main character, it lacks the abilities necessary to be truly effective.

The film’s plot involves a human doormat named Frank Darbo who dons the vigilante persona Crimson Bolt when his wife and the love of his life, Sarah, becomes strung out on drugs and moves in with a drug dealer named Jock. The film occasionally flashes back to Frank and Sarah’s relationship, one that’s based on two damaged people (Sarah a recovering addict and Frank with obvious undiagnosed mental health issues) trying to hold and build each other up when it’s clear they need to be focused on their own recovery, something Sarah’s sister points out when the couple first announces their engagement.

While leveling up to saving Sarah, who seems just as disrespectful and dismissive of Frank as everyone else in his life, Fra--ah, the Crimson Bolt takes on drug dealers, robbers and pedophiles. It’s here that I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversial dustup regarding James Gunn and the recently dug out skeletons in his social media closet. The film deals with a lot of the very same content James tweeted about a decade ago (as of this review) that got him fired from Disney. Thankfully, James has gone on record apologizing for his actions.

Crimson and Boltie.

Getting back to Super, Crimson Bolt reminded me a lot of the psychologically shattered Rorschach/Walter Kovacs from Watchmen, but Rainn Wilson’s Frank lacked Kovacs’ depth, rich backstory and fully fleshed out characterization (all of which I made sure to include in my own debut novel, FURIES: THUS SPOKE, a graphic novel in prose about six people who are casualties of circumstance becoming accidental heroes after being involved in the murder of a renowned superhuman family). I never found myself caring about Frank or the Crimson Bolt, nor did I develop any sort of attachment to his sidekick Boltie, a girl named Libby who is an employee of the comic book shop where Frank goes to research how to be a superhero.

I hate to write a review brimming with nothing but gripes, but that’s all I have for this movie. Stereotype after stereotype fills the movie’s runtime. From black drug dealers, jokes about being raped in prison and glorifying (damn-near-fetishising) gratuitous violence without consequence, to an actual rape of Frank, and the use of the n-word - this movie’s got it all in unflattering spades. Rather than keep pointing out the many missteps, I’d like to focus on what could have been done better, in my opinion, and how James has grown since releasing Super.

Take that, Crime!

It would have been interesting to see Frank acknowledge the fact that he needed mental help while acting as Crimson Bolt. I feel that would have added a great bit of nuance to his character, and it would have been interesting to see how therapy helped shaped both his identities. This small inclusion may have been enough to keep Frank from being essentially the same character at the end of the movie that he was at the beginning. Libby could have acted as his support system both psychologically and while the two were out in the field, and maybe that desire to be a supportive force could have been her catalyst for becoming a sidekick rather than a solo hero.

While I didn’t at all care for Super, I do like how much James Gunn has improved as a storyteller. This may have been something he needed to purge from his creative system to give us gems like Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, some of our greatest triumphs blossom from the seeds of our greatest personal failings. Rather than watching his parents or uncle die before being compelled to become a hero, it seems as if Gunn was instead compelled to kill off his immature persona before donning a new one. And that’s an origin story I don’t mind watching again and again.

Runtime: 96 minutes

Recommend Buy, Rent, or Skip: Absolutely skip, unless you’re a die-hard James Gunn fan. Even then, you may find this one isn’t worth your time.

Cover of Modern Dread.

Next Up: Modern Dread, a horror anthology focused on modern fears and anxieties. What eldritch horrors have yet to be unleashed from our high-death-inition screens? Not to worry, there’s an app and a graphic novel for that!

Rebirth of Andy Wicks (Cool Like Dat) - A Review of Too Cool to Be Forgotten, by Alex Robinson

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of Too Cool to Be Forgotten.

While some of us may have more than a few not-so-bad memories of high school, we can all agree that none of us knew quite what the hell we were doing other than trying to figure ourselves out - just like we had to figure out the right way to use the Pythagorean theorem and how to untangle the mysteries of Middle English. In Too Cool To Be Forgotten, Alex Robinson gives main character (Andy Wicks) an unexpected opportunity to get high school right (if that’s at all possible to do) when he’s hypnotized in an attempt to undo his smoking habit.  

Same body, different mind.

Too Cool is a quick read with a tight, satisfying plot. Andy Wicks has tried anything and everything to quit smoking, but smoking seems to have made him a habit just as much as he’s made smoking a habit. Desperate, Andy goes to a hypnotist, an opening scene that brilliantly gives us most of his history and character profile with a single page displaying his new patient form at the hypnotist’s office. Rather than ending up as the next Manchurian Candidate or being pulled into The Sunken Place, Andy is instead swayed back into his high school body with his adult mind intact. What else does he change besides his answer the first time he was offered a cigarette?

Something that immediately struck me upon cracking open Robinson’s short but sweet selection was his use of light and shadow. While the utility isn’t original or isolated (Sin City immediately jumps to my noir-infused mind), what I liked most was how Robinson uses the composition juxtaposition to paint the picture of a man trapped in the shadow of his past while attempting to spark a light for his future. Robinson also paints a literal picture with words that was a nice alternative to the typical thought bubble.

Moving past the artwork and digging into the story, I enjoyed how Too Cool touched on how everyone has contemplated returning to high school with the knowledge and wisdom they have now in an effort to do better. But if you had done things “better,” would you still have the same insight that allowed you to change things in your favor? Would you still be the same person? Because Andy is a geek and relatively happy with his present-day life, he’s careful not to make too many ripples in the time stream; although, he is certainly tempted to shuffle the cards more than a few times.

Worth a thousand words.

While Andy re-lives his way toward “that moment,” he thinks about how he lost touch with some of his high school friends/classmates and how some of them eventually ended up as adults. Even with social media, we can still easily lose contact with people from high school that we still consider friends. Friends who may have turned out completely different from what we expected when we knew them in high school. Popular kids can have their popularity snatched away from them as soon as they walk across the graduation stage; the quiet kids can later find their voices in surprising and bold career choices; and the geeks and nerds can prove to be the only ones who truly know, understand, and accept who they are from the jump.

At one point in his journey, Alex almost gives in to his raging teenage hormones when he’s at a party, the very one where he lit up his first cigarette. But because he has the mind of a 40-year-old, Andy feels he is taking advantage of the high school girl - one who’s young enough to be his daughter. While the two are biologically the same age, Andy still feels as if he almost committed statutory rape, a detail I’m glad Robinson explored. It’s this knowledge of the present and the past that brings our main character equal measures of grief and comfort.

Don’t we all.

And I cannot end this review without talking about “the conversation” at the end of the story. I would be utterly ruining the experience by revealing the details, but I will say that it was every bit as emotional as promised and fit the narrative perfectly. When it comes to bad habits, it’s not enough to quit, you have to have a bone-deep reason to stay off the wagon day after day no matter how tired you may be of walking.

I enjoyed the hell outta Too Cool, as you can easily see. It’s a rapid read that hits all the right notes. Rather than wishing we’d done things differently in high school (or any other time in life), maybe it’s better that we focus on manifesting a present that’s free of regrets. As long as you can say that you do the best you can with what you have, you’re sure to have memories of a life that’s too cool to be forgotten.

Page Length: 125 pgs

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Absolutely buy new

Movie poster for Super

Next Up: The black comedy/drama Super is directed by James Gunn, who tells the story of a short-order cook (played by Rainn Wilson) who takes on an alternate superpower-less alter ego called the Crimson Bolt to save his ex-wife from the wiles of a drug dealer. Should be interesting to see how well (if at all) this movie holds up after it was first released in 2010, especially since Gunn went on to direct Guardians of the Galaxy.

Girls? Girls. GIRLS! - A Review of Girls, by the Luna Brothers

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of Girls

Growing up in a small town in Alabama, I always wished that something exciting would happen, something that would take me out of the soul-numbing, small-town existence that made me feel as if life were on an infinite loop. I was immediately reminded of that feeling when I started Girls, which is set in Pennystown, population 63. Besides small-town life, the Luna Brothers’ series also focuses on the age-old theme of gender differences, but with a sci-fi backdrop.   

The story starts with an introduction to one of the main characters, Ethan, who is...enjoying some gentleman’s time with a soft porn magazine. From there, we follow Ethan to his job at the local grocery store where he bumbles his way through an attempt at flirting with the new girl in town (she sprinkles the conversation with heavy sexual innuendo, so it’s no wonder that he thinks she’s hitting on him). Later, he meets up with his friend Merv at a bar where they demonstrate a textbook-perfect definition of “incel,” topping things off with a misogynistic tirade against all the women in the bar.

From there, Ethan is 86’d from the bar, and there’s a tremendous BOOM! that’s powerful enough to make it stop raining (cue The X-Files theme). Our Debonair Dan speeds away in his car, which is when he almost hits a naked woman in the middle of the road. Out of the goodness of his dic--eh, heart, Ethan takes the silent femme fatale home and offers her food and shelter. In contrast with his earlier interaction with a woman where she droped sexual hints with her words that didn’t match her true intentions, the mysterious woman practically clubs Ethan over the head with sexual hints with her body that more than match her true intentions.

And so it begins

The two engage in the dance of the two-backed beast, but instead of a Shakespearean play, the act results in Ethan finding several eggs of various sizes in his bathroom...which hatch into several clones of the dark-haired woman. Clones that want to repeat the sexual cycle with any male they can get their hands on while ripping apart any female they can get their hands on. And then there’s the giant, translucent sperm monster in a cornfield and the massive force field surrounding the town that keeps anyone from getting in or out. Again, cue The X-Files theme.

Besieged on all sides

The rest of the graphic novel explores the men and women of Pennystown coming to grips with the fact that they’ve been infiltrated and trapped by a beautiful alien invasion, trying to keep the men from succumbing to their baser desires - and keeping the women and children safe. All the while, tempers flare, more clone eggs are hatched, and the statuses of relationships/marriages are discussed between clone skirmishes reminiscent of Attack on Titan.

Bears aren’t the only things to watch out for in the woods

One of the things I liked most about Girls is the fact that it’s a character-driven story with text-heavy speech bubbles. That said, the Luna Brothers paid equally close attention to the visuals of their tale, with frames having a cinematic feel with special focus on the background or foreground. The brothers also don’t shy away from a deep examination of the differences in perspective between men and women - not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to relationships. While the story does have a gay character, I feel it could’ve been interesting if it had had a gay couple as well (male or female) just to see how that dynamic would have played out.

The women fight back

One thing that I didn’t care much for is the fact that most (not all) of the male characters are unlikeable assholes, while most (not all) of the female characters are treated like shit. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but I felt it cost the story opportunities to have fewer gender stereotypes and be more polished, more multifaceted. Something else I didn’t like was how the characters kept calling the clones “girls” (practically on every page). If I’d just witnessed a gang of clones rip a woman’s hair from her scalp, gnaw through her neck/stomach, beat her senseless, and try to tear her arms and legs off, the last thing I would call them would be “girls.” There were also a few character reactions I felt were mishandled and implausible, such as attempting to grab a loaded gun from someone’s hands and smacking a pregnant woman out of anger.

Going back to the character-driven elements of the story, it was a great shift when the torch was passed (a little inside joke) to the female characters in the middle of the series, especially Nancy. I don’t want to give the impression that none of the male characters have any redeeming qualities, because some of them do - especially Wes and the reverend. My main beef with most of the male characters is the fact that they usually acted like horny adolescents who didn’t give a damn that they were trapped behind a force field with a giant sperm monster next door. I want depth, layers, nuance!   

Overall, Girls is worth reading for the excellent horror, survival, and suspense elements alone. The Luna Brothers had some solid ideas, and they stuck more landings than they bumbled, but know that they do leave a few questions unanswered, as you may expect. It would be interesting if they had a follow-up series called Boys where they explored what would happen if the aliens were male rather than female.

Think twice if you ever see a beautiful, dark-haired naked man wandering the streets alone. No matter how enticing he might seem, he just might tear your heart out.        

Page Length: 624 pgs hardcover, 608 paperback

Recommend Buy New, Buy Used/On Sale, or Skip: Buy paperback used/on sale (I’d also check with your local library)

Too Cool To Be Forgotten cover.

Next Up: Too Cool to Be Forgotten, by Alex Robinson, is the story of Andy Wicks, who tries hypnosis to break his smoking habit, only he finds himself blasted back into his high school body with his 40-year old mind. Will he use the opportunity to change more than his smoking habit, or is his life written in cigarette ash-dusted stone? Mortality, compassion, algebra class, family relationships, and a sneaky tear-jerker of an ending await!

Everybody Was Wuxia Fighting - A Review of The Four Trilogy, Directed by Gordon Chan and Janet Chun

Written by O'Brian Gunn

The gang’s all here.

My first introduction to the wuxia film genre was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Before that, I’d always been a fan of martial arts flicks, especially those that came out of China/Hong Kong, but there was something especially captivating about watching characters flow across the screen in gravity-mocking leaps and graceful fight scenes that were more like ballets with weapons. With The Four Trilogy, one of my favorite film genres was combined with another one of my favorites: superheroes. So did the three films Wing Chun punch me senseless with cinematic glory?

In the original The Four, audiences are introduced to Department Six, a government police force, and the Divine Constabulary, a small secret service whose members have supernatural abilities. Emotionless has the ability to read minds/auras and is telekinetic, and Iron Hands can make his arms hard as iron and can project chi from his fists. The two newcomers are Life Snatcher, who is a master tracker and projects chi from his superpowered kicks, and Cold Blood, who is essentially a werewolf with a mystical sword that can emit blades of green energy.

Enemies, lovers or friends?

The plot focuses on a counterfeit coin operation and Cold Blood being fired from Department Six and sent to infiltrate the Divine Constabulary to bring them down from the inside - due to a rivalry between the two forces. There’s also another double agent in Department Six, Ji Yaohua, who’s working for the film’s main antagonist, An Shigeneg. It’s not a spoiler to reveal the moles, as the movie makes their identities known fairly early on. What I like about this is that you don’t spend the film wondering who the double agents are, but focusing more on their motivations and how their roles impact them psychologically.

One thing you should know about this film is that there are a lot of characters to keep up with. The film does a pretty good job of not overwhelming you, but there were times where I had to pause to match faces with names. As far as what the film does right, the physical setting and costuming looked fantastic, there’s a contingent of female warriors in Department Six, and I like the bits of philosophy (doing the wrong thing for the right reasons) that were added. Areas I felt needed some fleshing out included character development and making the final battle less confusing in regards to just how the characters’ abilities worked and giving their powers limits. There’s also a love triangle between Cold Blood, Emotionless, and Ji Yaohua that didn’t really resonate with me.

Overall, The Four is a decent introduction to the trilogy, one that was enough to leave me wanting to learn more about the characters and the world they inhabit. The Four II (also titled The Lawless Kingdom) is where my prayers were answered.

In the second installation, the counterfeit operation plotline is tied up, and another is kicked off in the form of the discovery of several bodies of men who were supposed to have died 12 years ago. At the center of the mystery is Zhuge Zhengwo, the leader of the Divine Constabulary, mainly because it is he who attacked Cold Blood at the beginning of the film before the bodies are discovered, and because he is connected to the bodies. The story is tighter, we finally understand how the characters got their powers (chi manipulation), and the film dives headfirst into its mystical world rather than shuffling around it - as they did in the first film.

Fun with acupuncture

There were some truly great bits in The Four II. Emotionless and Zhuge Zhengwo are blocked from using their abilities by acupuncture, the jailbreak scene towards the end is a fantastic visual feast and well-paced, and the new antagonist (Lady Fog) reminded me of a villain from Power Rangers, but with less camp. I also liked how most of the minor characters from the first film had larger roles, and how the story is more character-driven. I won’t spoil the revelation towards the end, but I will say I loved the direction it took the characters and story in. This installation was my absolute favorite of the three.

The third and final entry (also titled Kingdom of Blood) is...regrettable. The events from the second film carry over, but the way they’re handled and tied up leaves a lot to be desired. In the final installation, there’s an assassination attempt on the emperor, and Zhuge Zhengwo does his best to get the divine band back together before An Shigeneg fills the void left by the absence of an emperor or heir. Because events from the last film left Emotionless with little choice but to leave the team, she’s reluctant to work with her old teammates again to investigate the murder, and she tells Cold Blood as much when he tries to bring her back into the fold. The only problem is that she immediately throws her hat in the investigation ring with no discernible reason why as soon as Cold Blood leaves. Maybe she’s not as emotionless as her name implies when it comes to him.  

The rest of the film was mostly a let down for me; fight scenes are uninspired (although there is a slight improvement with the final battle), and the delightful Lady Fog is barely even in this one! That said, I did like the development of Ji Yaohua’s duplicitous character, and there were a few solid attempts at humor that actually stuck their landings.

The requisite martial arts flick villain

The Four Trilogy makes for okay viewing if you’ve got a free afternoon/weekend and some popcorn you’ve been looking for a reason to devour. If you’re a completionist (like myself), you’ll likely be unable to bear the lingering loose ends left dangling by skipping the third movie, especially after viewing the end of the second movie. That said, you might have a different opinion than mine. Bear in mind that I like a wuxia film that has just as much of a compelling story/script/characters as it does breath-snatching fight scenes, so your movie mileage (and expectations) may vary.  

If you’re interested in plunging into the X-Men-esque trilogy for yourself, both The Four and Kingdom of Blood are currently available to rent on Google Play, and The Lawless Kingdom is available to view for free on the Tubi TV app, which is compatible with several devices.

Girls by The Luna Brothers.

Next Up: Girls, written by the Luna Brothers, depicts what happens when rural Pennystown is visited by beautiful aliens who want one thing in particular from the men and nothing from the women...except for their lives. Lines are drawn around the town and between the sexes as we figure out just what these girls want and what Pennystown’s residents are willing to do to see that they don’t get it.

Alan Moore & The Supremes - A Review of Alan Moore’s Supreme: The Story of the Year

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover for Supreme: The Story of the Year

Almost every comic book publisher has its own version of Superman, the archetypal superhero with superior strength, speed, senses, looks, and morals all paired with a gleaming Colgate smile. While you might be (understandably) tempted to groan in frustration at the idea of reading yet another comic book/graphic novel with a Superman-esque character and premise, that frustration can easily morph into intrigue upon learning that it’s Alan Moore at the helm ready to take you on a supreme ride that’s totally unlike the experience of Watchmen (in a good way), but with the same level of care and attention to intricate detail. Now embarking on Supreme: The Story of the Year (S:SY).

One of the first things you should know about S:SY is that it’s not packed to the spine with leap-off-the-page action, slick-looking characters, or a complex story. But sometimes, just as it’s nice to take a breather from reality by immersing yourself between the pages of a comic book, it’s nice to take a break from the riveting, nail-biting action and mosaic comic book narrative/universal event that aims to blow your mind. Sometimes, it’s nice to enjoy the ride down a lazy 2D river and remind yourself of how far comics have come.

Doesn’t get more nostalgic than this

Jumping right into the story, Moore opens his retro-infused tale with our titular hero returning to Earth, only it seems as though his home has blended with a parallel universe revealed to Supreme’s special senses. Our main character has also recently dealt with alternate versions of himself, which only adds to his bewilderment. Upon landing in Omegapolis, Supreme is hit with a feeling of deja vu as he’s greeted by several other Supremes, including a black female Sister Supreme, a mouse named Squeak the Suprememouse, and another that has a strong resemblance to DC’s original Shazam.

After reaching a loose understanding, Supreme and his superhuman siblings travel to The Supremacy, which serves as a nexus for the many different versions of Superma--eh, Supreme throughout the decades, Moore’s way of paying homage to the various iterations of Superman that have been revealed since his original debut back in the late 1930s. There’s even a version of Supreme that’s only lasted “one short month, without even a second appearance.” The stockpile of Supremes (and some of their side characters) have been waiting for each other since their respective runs ended, gradually being joined by the next generation's iteration that will be replaced by an even newer, sleeker model. Moore gets a bit meta at this point (as if we’d expect anything less from him), explaining that “our” Supreme has gaps in his memory because those memories haven’t been written yet.

The new old Supreme.

The story soars off in earnest when Supreme learns that he has an opportunity to return to his “newly-revised Earth,” an opportunity that none of the other Supremes have had. Our hero climbs up a golden staircase to his homeworld where he’ll fill in the blanks of his past and bear witness to his future.

From there, Moore uses a 50s-style comic book format blended with Supreme’s late 90s comic book look to explore our main character’s memories, which are all too reminiscent of The Superfriends and the Silver Age Justice League of the 50s. There’s so much to unpack with this dense graphic novel, from Supreme/Ethan Crane’s job as a comic book artist (who works on a comic that features a Supreme-like character) and his time as a member of The League of Infinity to the hero’s rogues’ gallery and the final showdown that you’d expect from a classic comic book between Supreme and a certain archnemesis.

The many faces of Supreme.

One thing worth noting is that S:SY is Moore’s mea culpa for the dark tone steeped in his earlier works, such as Batman: The Killing Joke and Swamp Thing. Moore’s lighter tone is reminiscent of the hopeful, World of Tomorrow-esque and (now) slightly cheesy feel imbued in Golden and Silver Age comics. If you’d like to explore more of that bygone era, I highly recommend Brian Fies’ Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? graphic novel.

While S:SY might sound like little more than a creative writing exercise, it’s a collection that should be considered required reading for comic book fans of all ages. It takes you back not only to Rob Liefeld’s long-legged and barrel-chested art style, but to the birth of comic books. Compared to other Superman riffs, this selection reigns Supreme.   

Movie poster for The Four.

Next Up: The Four Trilogy. Warriors with superpowers. Wuxia. ‘Nuff said.

His Power Level Is Over 9,000! - A Review of Chronicle, Directed by Josh Trank (with mild spoilers)

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Chronicle movie poster.

Many of us have wondered what it would be like to have superpowers, but Uncle Ben would probably agree that it’s unfortunate that power and responsibility aren’t always a package deal. In 2012, director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis gave audiences a lot to think about when they debuted Chronicle, the documentary-style film about three high schoolers - Andrew, Matt, and Steve - who are given the power of telekinesis when they discover an alien object (reminiscent of a crystallized Shuma-Gorath) burrowed underground.

Andrew, the main character, keeps to himself and is usually seen (when he’s not behind the camera) in black. At home, his loving mother is dying of cancer, and his verbally and physically abusive father is a disabled former firefighter who feels as powerless as his son, but deals with his circumstances in a much more toxic way. At school, Andrew is a target for bullies and often perceived as creepy and severely withdrawn. His cousin Matt is a touch more sociable and encourages Andrew to crack his way out of his shell, and Steve is a rare popular kid who doesn’t seem to mind associating and being seen with the not-so-popular kids.

Who’s behind the camera?

What drives Chronicle’s narrative is the question of “does power shape us, or do we shape power?” Both Matt and Steve are set up as the good guys, saving a man from drowning in a car after Andrew “accidentally” hurls him off the road for tailgating and blaring his horn at them, while Andrew remains as an unknown throughout a majority of the film in regards to whether he’s a protagonist or antagonist; he has just as much potential for either.

Andrew quickly takes to his abilities, easily mastering flying, finesse, and great displays of power as he, Steve, and Matt weave between being mischievous teenagers playing pranks on random people and testing the limits of their new abilities. Andrew starts to gain more confidence, adds some color to his wardrobe, and opens up more to Steve and Matt, noting that he’d like to travel to Tibet for a slice of serenity.    

Andrew also experiences both the sweetness and bitterness of putting yourself in the public spotlight, flooring his high school during a talent show in which he uses his powers masqueraded as magic tricks, and being humiliated when he drunkenly vomits on a girl as they’re hooking up. Matt is on the receiving end of a flicker of the depths of Andrew’s still-unresolved rage when he tries to capture the moment on film. This is a catalyst that reminds Andrew that despite all his power, he’s still trapped, still powerless to save his mother, still the same old Andrew.

A side of telekinesis with every order

It’s when Andrew’s mother’s condition worsens that he uses his abilities to rob neighborhood bullies and a gas station. An accident leads to an explosion at the gas station, which likely killed the owner and leaves Andrew with severe injuries. When Andrew’s father visits him in the hospital and informs him that his mother has died and starts to hit him, Andrew’s eyes snap open and he rages into full Phoenix mode for the duration of the movie before Matt, unable to calm him down, has no choice but to kill his cousin, a self-proclaimed apex predator.

This movie was a jab in the gut for me. I could easily identify with Andrew, as I’m also an introvert (I hesitate to use “loner”), was bullied for a period of time in high school, and my home life wasn’t the best, either. Andrew isn’t much different from the many school shooters who seem to crop up damn near every day, and Chronicle gives us an example of what can happen when we don’t handle our emotions in a healthy way and when we feel like we have no agency in life. While I can understand resorting to criminal actions for what you see as a noble outcome and standing up for yourself by any means you feel necessary, I also feel that Andrew had opportunities to let Matt, Steve, and his mom provide him with the support he needed to work through his anger and gain much-needed clarity. But then again, how much help do you think you need when you can fly and lift cars with your mind?

Apex predator mode

And this review wouldn’t be complete without touching on Josh Trank and Mike Landis, both of whom have sordid and controversial pasts, and both of whom seem perfect to write/direct a movie about a self-destructive adolescent who has power but often seems to lack the temperament to use it wisely. After all, creative types can’t help but imbue a bit of themselves in their creations.

Chronicle might not bring anything new to philosophical discussions about morality and power, but the documentary style offers up a deeper insight into the film’s characters. It’s deeply personal to be captured and preserved on camera, especially without filters, editing, or special effects. And much like receiving superpowers, the camera has the ability to show you facets of your true personality that simmer just underneath the surface, waiting to be revealed to yourself and the world.

Cover of Supreme: The Story of the Year.

Next Up: Alan Moore’s Supreme: Story of the Year, which offers an alternate take on Superman. In this self-contained story arc, Supreme explores his origins after losing his memory (in typical comic book fashion), taking readers on a journey through Little Haven and Omegapolis as Moore serves up his distinct commentary on not just superheroes, but comic books as a colorful and historic entity.  

The Ol’ One-Two Mind Punch: A Review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club 2 (with mild spoilers)

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Fight Club 2

Over the years, Fight Club has become more of an experience than a movie, one that has shaped many a mind and outlook on life. While it was considered a box-office failure when initially released in 1999, it has since become somewhat of a lifestyle, mostly for men. I admit that when I first watched Edward Norton and Brad Pitt pummel each other’s bodies, lives, and minds, I, too, was a bit taken in with the message about the dangers of toxic consumerism. It also didn’t hurt that the film had a healthy dusting of homoerotic subtext, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Sebastian & Marla

With Fight Club 2, Palahniuk and artist Cameron Stewart lull us back into the head of The Narrator (now going by the name Sebastian) to explore his life 10 years after Project Mayhem. He’s married to Marla, lives in the suburbs, and has a son, all the trappings you think he’d avoid at all costs. But just like with typical life in the suburbs, a white picket fence isn’t enough of a barrier to hold back the dual-darkness churning within the seemingly happy home.

Sebastian still has Tyler Durden haunting and rearranging his mental house, despite his taking medication and working with a therapist to keep his alternate personality under control. The fact that Marla is willingly undoing her husband’s mental renovations by replacing some of his pills with aspirin so she can feel alive again with Tyler also doesn’t help matters. Readers are treated to the familiar narrative voice, well-marinated revelations, and turns of phrase that glazed the movie script, easily drawing you back into the jangled world. But just like the inside of Sebastian’s skull, there are some major differences.

With the help of members of Project Mayhem, Tyler has birthed a new movement called Rize or Die. Just as Sebastian shifted his life to the suburbs, Tyler has shifted his focus to the entire world, inciting wars and terror in various countries in the hopes of sieving through mankind to leave only those who are worthy of inheriting the earth...or at least what remains of it once the dust has settled, the fires of war have been extinguished, and the casualties have been taken care of.

Just like in Fight Club, Sebastian acts as the fly in Tyler’s psychedelic ointment, this time fighting to save his son, who has been kidnapped by Tyler and the rest of Rize or Die/Fight Club in an attempt to turn the child into a military leader. Tapping into newly developed maternal instincts, Marla does her part by working with a progeria support group (which she infiltrated in her usual fashion) made up of computer geniuses who help her track down her son.

Throughout the novel’s 10 chapters, plus a revisited ending to the original novel, Palahniuk and Stewart weave an at times confusing tale that still manages to offer up some insightful commentary about the banal prison of routine that suburban and married life can sometimes become, the current state of masculinity, and the concept of ideas shaping humanity rather than humanity shaping ideas.

A Family dinner in Fight Club 2.

That’s just the general foundation of the plot. To avoid ruining the full experience, I won’t go into too much detail about Tyler’s origins; the meta tissues powering the movement of the narrative; or how parts of the story reminded me of Mr. Robot, Legion, and the Metal Gear Solid series. What I will do is say that the “2” in Fight Club 2 not only signifies the fact that it’s a sequel, but also the fact that you’ll likely have to read the story twice to truly start to wrap your mind around what’s really going on...and maybe even “2” for the number of alternate personalities you’ll need to not just know, but understand what’s going on.

Fight Club 2 pummeled me to a bloody, confused pulp, but that literary beating is balanced out with a full mental massage of introspection administered by the same hands that frenetically put together the puzzle of the original Fight Club. I didn’t love this graphic novel, but I didn’t entirely hate it either...which might be intentional in a story about someone with dual personalities, to add a hint of dualism to the narrative. I’m gonna need some time to recover before round three.

Chronicle (2012)

Next Up: Chronicle, film director Josh Trank’s initial 2012 foray into the cinematic world of superpowers before the much-lambasted Fantastic Four. Chronicle is the story of three high schoolers given the power of telekinesis and their shared journey down the fine line separating heroes from villains.

Fade to Black & White Under the Plague Moonlight: A Review of Charles Burns’ Black Hole

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Cover of the hardcover collection of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

Growing up, most of us learned the consequences of sex, whether it was the consequences of unprotected sex, sex with someone of the same gender, or not waiting until we’re mentally and emotionally ready to have sex. In Black Hole, Charles Burns teaches readers another thing about sex: that it can physically transform you for what might be the rest of your life.

Black Hole is set in Seattle in the mid-70s. A strange plague is spreading through the town, one that affects sexually-active teenagers and no one else. It would be easy to call the plague just another sexually-transmitted disease, but this contagion acts more like a physical mutation, one that leaves deformities that are both minor enough to be easily concealed underneath a shirt, and extensive enough that some live hidden on the outskirts of town.

Burns’ black and white images do a great job of setting the scene, visually taking readers back to the mood and aesthetic of the 70s. The lack of color also helps lull the reader into the characters’ heads as they descend into a mental labyrinth looping, spiraling, and curving across the brain’s hemispheres with images that are visually arresting one moment, and stomach-churning the next. Rather than a fever dream, some visuals are more like fever nightmares, ones that make you wonder  what kind of trip Burns was on when he conceived of them.

Page 5 of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

When not treated to horrors and glories pulped and sculpted from the sides of Burns’ skull, the reader pieces together the narrative with help from a generous cast of characters. But this is where the story stumbles a bit for me. My main issue is that not only are the characters similarly drawn, making it difficult to tell them apart sometimes, they also have similar stories and personalities.

The female characters are also a bit of a letdown. Nearly all of them have the same voice; the same personality; and the same need to be saved, sustained by, and cater to the whims of male characters. This could just be Burns’ interpretation of the teenage (both male and female) hormonal confusion and near-constant desire to be with the one you “love”/are infatuated with, but it often comes across as disappointment and more missed opportunities to flesh out a story, a story in which one character actually sheds her flesh.

That said, there is one male character who’s emotionally floundering his way through his transformation and reaches out to a female character in search of stability, albeit in a way that’s anything but stable. This particular character only makes a minor, supporting appearance in the story, and I would’ve liked a deeper look inside his head.

Page 32 of Black Hole, by Charles Burns.

There’s also a plot point in the middle of the story that’s as unexpected as an unplanned pregnancy. The graphic novel is told through a series of vignettes, and this particular plot point appears in three different narratives, but it’s never either explained nor resolved. But maybe it’s not supposed to be?   

But focusing more on the positive and accentuating less of the not-so-positive, Burns does a great job of injecting sensual imagery and symbolism throughout the story that make you view each individual panel as a work of art rather than outright pornography. Oddly, this also lends a hint of paranoia to the tale as the reader wonders if certain images are meant to be purposefully sexual or nothing more than regular objects, a bit like a teenager might think during his or her sexual awakening.

While I certainly have a few qualms about Black Hole, including the confounding soft and hard ending(s), they weren’t major enough to make me swear off anything else Charles Burns conjures up. Much like It Follows, this is a graphic novel that makes you rethink the psychological “afteresex” of such an intimate sharing of your body and identity. Maybe Burns imbued his story with a plague of his own, because after reading it, I learned that a film adaptation of Black Hole is in the works by New Regency and Plan B. In the words of Diana Ross, “If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.”    

Fight Club 2, by Chuck Palahniuk & Cameron Stewart.

Next Up: Fight Club 2, the graphic novel follow-up to the cult classic film Fight Club that explores The Narrator’s life 10 years after Project Mayhem. Will a wife, a kid, and a handful of pills be enough to keep Tyler Durden away? Doubtful.   

The Method Behind the Unabridged Madness

Written by O'Brian Gunn

Might be best to wait until the final coda of  A Song of Ice and Fire  before we dive back in.

Might be best to wait until the final coda of A Song of Ice and Fire before we dive back in.

So why only review finished stories? Mainly because we’ve reached (and seem to be surpassing) peak content overload these days. How many TV series, books, podcasts, movie franchises, comic book/graphic novel series are you in the middle of watching/listening to/being delightfully assaulted by right now? And how many other things do you have going on in your life that are eating away at your time, no matter how much enjoyment you might derive from them? More than likely, quite a lot.

I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always loved how you can watch/experience characters from your favorite stories grow, change, and learn in ways they usually don’t or can’t when it comes to the standard movie/TV show format. That being said, it can also be more than a little exhausting keeping up with so many different characters, story developments, and plot twists (Who’s the father of Debra’s baby again?). Gotta have Netflix and Hulu and Comixology and Amazon Prime and HBO GO and whatever other new streaming service is rolling out. Now your wallet is burning along with the hours of the day.

With finished stories, you have an easier way to get your fix without the stress, nor is there a lengthy commitment contract that makes you feel like you’re being locked into an apartment lease (but much more enjoyable, and with muuuuch better neighbors). You know for a fact how many seasons/chapters/books there are, there’s no need to worry about the story being canceled right when things really start (or fail) to take off, you don’t have to worry about waiting in anticipation for the next season to premiere, and you don’t have to rewatch or reread past episodes/seasons/books as a refresher before the next installment (I know I’m not the only one who does this...am I?).

When an oh-so-very intriguing comic book run comes out right as you're financially recovering from your last haul at the comic book store.

When an oh-so-very intriguing comic book run comes out right as you're financially recovering from your last haul at the comic book store.

Something else to think about is that there are plenty of graphic novels/comic books, movies, and TV shows that have had a complete run that you might not be aware of, ones that just might become some of your new favorites. Who knows?

            At the end of every month, I’ll share in-depth reviews from both major and minor creators, leaning toward independent and lesser-known names and publishers to give them the exposure they rightfully deserve. After all, it’s no secret that the indie and creator-owned scene is one that truly dives fathoms-deep into the expansive creative ether and brings us pearls we’ve never dreamed of before, ones untarnished by corporate agendas, checklists, interference, and the like.

Hopefully, you’ll be introduced to more than a few new narratives and creators you’ve never heard of from a variety of mediums as you’re between ongoing stories, or when you’re ready to take a breather from climbing Mt. Colossal Content.

And don’t worry, I won’t wake you ‘til it’s done.

Cover of Charles Burns'  Black Hole .

Cover of Charles Burns' Black Hole.

First up: Black Hole, a graphic novel from Charles Burns set in 1970s Seattle that explores what happens when teenage sexual contact becomes a sexual plague, one that leaves behind physical deformities that are subtle for some and so grotesque for others that they are forced to live outside of town.