Sunday, June 29, 2014

Image Comics' The Mercenary Sea: They aim to misbehave

The Mercenary Sea: They aim to misbehave
by rick olivares

Adventure in the high seas of the last great war. Mercs. Hollywood loving cannibals. Beautiful spies.

If you love Baa Baa Black Sheep, Firefly, and Han Solo you’ll love Kel Symons and Matthew Reynolds’ The Mercenary Sea; one of the best comic books out there today that you might have not heard of but should get to reading post-haste.

The Mercenary Sea is set in the Asia-Pacific theater right before the European conflagration engulfed that hemisphere to become a truly world war. A team led by a bootlegger named Jack Harper has gathered a band of mercenaries of disparate backgrounds and nationalities who ply the shipping routes as smugglers and soldiers of fortune. Standing in their way are the Chinese Nationalist and Japanese Imperial Armies with the former a sometimes ally but of circumstance.

Their Serenity or Millennium Falcon is a submarine called The Venture that was taken (or stolen depending on which point of view you subscribe to) from the Chinese Nationalist Army. And of course, that means they want it back.

I love the fact that Symons uses real events in the backdrop of this story from Japan’s invasion of China to that country’s struggle with a communist insurgency to the use of comfort women, an issue that remains controversial in Southeast Asia to this day.

Harper is a complex man. Although his allegiance is to money and whatever pays the bills, he has a conscience and recklessly dives into trouble such as in the case of rescuing the comfort women or foregoing pay to help a medical mission. This puts him at odds with the rest of the crew most notably Wulf, a former WWI U-Boat commander, who pilots The Venture.

As a kid, I read all sorts of comics and not just the superhero fare. I read westerns and even the war comics like G.I. Combat and Sgt. Rock. My favorite was Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos.

While Symons’ writing contains none of the snappy patter that characterized Stan Lee’s Sgt. Fury, The Mercenary Sea is a great read as the crew of The Venture bicker, argue, and complain as they torpedo into one adventure and battle after another.

John “Smokestack” Johnson is Gabriel Jones. Milton Weatherborne III is Percival Pinkerton. Wulf Renner is Eric Koenig.

Ah, but Symons goes the extra mile because there’s the Carol Danvers-esque Samantha Blair and alluring British spy, Evelyn Greene.

Speaking of my analogy to Sgt. Fury, if you were a fan of that comic book, you will know that a primary character was killed in the fourth issue. With all the shooting on land and sea in The Mercenary Sea, it stands to reason there will be casualties. Eventually.

And a huge part of the book’s allure is the beautiful artwork and coloring by Matthew Reynolds that leaves you gazing at each and every panel. Every page is a visual treat. It’s like going through animated cells from a Saturday morning cartoon; in particular, Jonny Quest.

I love Reynolds’ use of colors. Not since we had Liquid Graphics on X-treme X-men (adding a lot more depth to Salvador Larroca’s already impressive art) as well as Lynn Varley coloring Frank Miller’s 300 has the coloring of a comic book looked so vibrant.

Matt’s use of light and shadows are very evocative; the best since Frank Miller was our tourist guide to Sin City. The Mercenary Sea may have this pop art feel but it is every bit powerful as a blast from a battleship.

And make no mistake, Reynolds’ work is a huge part of the appeal of this book.

The way the team uses its creative titles and covers that reminds me of those classic Punisher issues of Carl Potts and artists Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio.

There are a couple of other “war” books out today – Avatar’s Uber and Image’s Peter Panzerfaust. However, both have a superhero/powers bent to it. The Mercenary Sea is your conventional “war” book with great characters and even bigger action.

Now check it out or report at 0500 hours for latrine duty.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Letting go and going back on the hunt

Maybe it's age. Maybe I'm like those salmon that go back to the place of their birth. Maybe I am dissatisfied with a lot of the current comic books of today. It's perhaps a combination of all three. 

In recent months, I let go of nearly my entire collection. It was a difficult decision but the trigger had to be pulled. Years abroad had seen my collection go "un-maintained" as a result, the pages browned with the acid of plastic marring others. 

I wanted a leaner collection. Keeping only books I liked and opting for trade formats that made for easier reading. 

For as long as I have been collecting and I am going on my 41st year of reading and collecting, I have read the independents. I purchased them even when most of my peers opted for the mainstream (most who jumped on board when Image exploded). I have no idea why I was smitten by the indies as early as my college years but there it is. 

For example, back in the 80s, I picked up Dragonforce from Aircel comics. And this was before Dale Keown became a star on The Incredible Hulk. As I have written elsewhere, I was smitten with Mike Baron's and Steve Rude's Nexus and Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer. There was this shop in the old Virra Mall that was the only one that sold Comico's The Elementals. The art seemed so crude and the stories a little racy but I loved it. Then Dark Horse published that awesome Aliens vs Predator. 

During the early years of the new millennium, I'd frequent Hot Topic at Jersey Gardens. Maybe it was the pretty Goth chick behind the counter. And yep, they had a lot of cool CDs and band merch. And they also had some comic books too. It was there where I picked up Serena Valentino's and Ted Naifeh's Gloom Cookie (the first edition trade paperback). Little 

With a leaner collection (I just have seven long boxes containing singles), I began to get stuff I liked and truly enjoyed when I was younger. I have been trolling back issue bins and ordering online (Mile High and My Comic Shop) for some books that remain a fond memory from my childhood and teen/young adult years. 

I picked up the Marv Wolfman and George Perez Teen Titans, the George Perez Wonder Woman, the pre-Crisis Justice League of America, the Bill Mantlo-Michael Golden Micronauts, the Denny O'Neill Daredevil run, Thor with the runs of Walt Simonson and Dan Jurgens, the Mark Gruenwald run on Captain America, the Jim Steranko and Jackson Guice runs on Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD, Jim Starlin's Dreadstar, and Peter David's sterling run on The Incredible Hulk. 

I also got those original graphic novels that Marvel came out in the 1980s -- Spider-Man 'Hooky' with art by Berni Wrightson, The Raven Banner with art by Charles Vess, and Marada the She-Wolf by Chris Claremont and John Bolton. 

I got some individual issues of GI Joe (Yearbook #2 with Michael Golden art) and anniversary issues of Detective Comics. Due to the online ordering, I was able to fill in gaps in my collection. However it isn't that easy. A lot of them are pricey; some are even out of stock and unavailable. 

Nevertheless, I have to say that I am enjoying hunting those stuff I enjoyed from those wonder years.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Pull List June 25

The week's Pull List: 

The Mercenary Sea #5 (Image), Ms. Marvel #5 (Marvel), The New Warriors #6 (Marvel), Flash Gordon #3 (Dynamite), Amazing Spider-Man #3 (Marvel), Deadly Class #5 (Image)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Filipino artist Fritz Casas on Dynamite Comics’ Blood Queen

Filipino artist Fritz Casas on Dynamite Comics’ Blood Queen
by rick olivares

American comic book publisher Dynamite recently released Blood Queen #1 that features the artwork of Filipino Fritz Casas.

Blood Queen is sword and sorcery tale inspired the notorious Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed who is known as one of the most prolific female serial killers in history as she was alleged to have drank and bathed in the blood of the hundreds of girls she tortured and killed in the 16th century in order to keep her youth.

Blood Queen, as written by Tom Brownsfield, begins with the heartbreaking plight of a royal child, teetering between life and death.  Summoned to save the princess, a young woman of untold power begins a journey that will uncover secrets, reveal forbidden desires, and stoke the fires of war. 

Providing art chores is Casas who has done a lot of Dynamite’s titles in recent years by illustrating Dragonsbane, Miss Fury, and Queen Sonja. Casas has made a name for himself by drawing gorgeous and beautiful women.

During a recent signing for Blood Queen #1 at Comic Odyssey at Fullybooked in Promenade, Greenhills, Casas admitted to being unsure about attending the signing.

“I am not a household name unlike other Filipino artists like Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Arnold Arre or Kajo Baldisimo,” confided Casas. “I hardly even attend comic books events as I prefer to stay home with my family.”

“When Sandy Sansolis of Comic Odyssey asked me if we could do a signing, I was nervous,” he added. “The few times I went to an event, I was at ease if I was with a group of other artists. But a solo signing? Would people even come? Will they even buy the book?”

Sansolis ordered a couple of dozen copies of the issue that instantly sold out (as compared to the hundreds of copies he orders for the more popular titles). “The popularity of Indie comics are hard to predict,” said the Comic Odyssey head honcho. “If they are good, they spread by word of mouth and it is usually by the second or third issue where you can make adjustments in ordering. But the nice thing about having a Filipino artist in American comics is there is a market for them.”

Casas, who grew up in Bulan, Sorsogon, didn’t even know there was a whole new four-colored world out there for comic books. His only exposure to the medium while growing up in the province was the local fare that his mother read.

“When I saw the local komiks, I was hooked,” recalled Casas of that time that made such a huge impact on his dreams. “I knew then what I wanted to do.”

Moving to Manila for his secondary and tertiary education, he got exposed to American comics and its heavy superhero fare. “All the more I wanted to become a comic book artist,” noted Casas.

The first ever comic book he purchased with his own money was the first issue that Uncanny X-Men issue that Whilce Portacio drew. “By then he had done X-Factor and word spread that he was Filipino. I saved my money to buy that and holding that copy in my hands blew me away.”

From Portacio, Casas soon discovered other noted artists of the 1990s from Jim Lee to Todd McFarlane to Marc Silvestri and more.

He honed his craft while working as a visualizer in an ad agency and eventually began to post his work online drawing the interest of American agents.

One agent first saw his work where he sketched the popular video game, Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor. Casas was asked to submit sequential art but he didn’t comply.

“I wasn’t ready,” he confessed. “I had not done any sequential art. Storytelling was something I had to learn.”

When a second agent asked him a year later, Casas was ready. And soon he began to illustrate books from Dynamite and the rest is history.

For the Blood Queen, Casas has submitted four issues worth of art and is currently finishing his fifth issue.

“I work from full scripts,” he said of the process with Brownsfield. “Sometimes, if I feel I can tweak something, I ask permission to do so. Luckily, he is a nice person who is very accommodating and he allows it. As I learn this craft, right now, I am at ease working from full scripts.”

“My plan is to also put out my own local komiks next year,” he revealed. “Something with historical undertones with a bit of sci-fi.”

“I hope people will like it though.”

No doubt, we’ll find out – at the next signing.

With Fritz Casas at the Blood Queen signing.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Four refreshing Marvel Comics: Daredevil, Silver Surfer, She-Hulk and Hawkeye

Who says you need to write grim and gritty to tell a good story? Outside the angst-ridden X and Avengers titles, Marvel is producing top-notch comics with fantastic story telling and equally awesome art. And here are some of them sleeper hits.

Daredevil has always had a sense of humor. Chalk that up to Stan Lee as its early writer. The introduction of Mike Murdock also known as the fake brother of Matt Murdock necessitated the question: Is Mike and Daredevil the real Matt Murdock and not the mild-mannered lawyer he is purported to be?

With all these Frank Miller wannabes putting ole Hornhead through the wringer, the stories just got to heavy. 

Mark Waid coming on board has brought an element of playfulness to the character once more. Much like his run on the Flash. The recent DD artists from Paolo Manuel Rivera, Marcos Martin and now Chris Samnee have likewise brought a fresh outlook and feel to the book. 

In the panel above, Waid and Samnee depict the popularity of the selfie in today's world. That Murdock has been outted as Daredevil spins the book in an entirely different direction. Matt has become a celebrity and a target for villains.

Haven't really been a fan of the Silver Surfer. But when I heard that Michael Allred was taking over the art chores I had to pick it up. Not exactly crazy over Dan Slott's stuff but Allred's indie pop art was the invitation. I have always loved his stuff from Madman to X-Statix and had to make sure this was on my pull list.

What Slott and Allred have right here is the potential to create the next great space faring hero since Nexus with really interesting adventures and without resorting to fighting Skrulls, Kree, Shiar and whatnot. And if I haven't made myself clear, there are laughs galore. Check out the panel above. Power cosmic indeed.

Never was a fan of She-Hulk except when she joined the Fantastic Four. The impetus to pick up this book was Javier Pulido who pinched hit for the perennially late David Aja on Hawkeye. This book has more of a lawyer feel to it than a super-hero one and that is part of the allure. Yes, and Pulido's art.

Hawkeye sort of introduced this recent wave of indie-feel Marvel books. Matt Fraction and David Aja were unleashing some of the most original and refreshing books out in the market until they began to miss deadlines. Then the "bro" storyline dragged and the tardiness wore me out.

Plus….. there's Ms. Marvel. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

One of the coolest t-shirts ever. Hail Hydra!

Here's a new shirt from Her Universe. It's seems like it's a SHIELD tee but when at night and the lights go out, it glows! In Hydra Green. Halp! A double agent!

The Spies who I love: Velvet and the spy genre

The Spies who I love: Velvet and back
by rick olivares

How can I not be a fan of the cloak and dagger genre when I was routinely bombarded from three different media?

There were the James Bond films that were a must watch film not only for the action and stunts, the incredible gadgets, and larger than life villains but also for the gorgeous women. There was Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series that my parents read and secretly picked up when they weren’t looking. And lastly, there was the Modesty Blaise comic strip that I eagerly read in the newspaper.

As much as I love Bond, I’d give a lot of credit to Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise for fermenting my love for the genre.

In only three or four daily panels, Modesty Blaise held me in her thrall. The newspaper strip brought readers to different locales. And perhaps even more incredibly, it didn’t shy away from sex and violence. I have never seen a central character run around in her underwear as much as Modesty and for a young impressionable child like me back then, unable to access Playboy and Penthouse, Peter O’Donnell’s heroine was my Bettie Page; a black and white goddess.

I used to cut out the Modesty Blaise strips but noticed how sometimes the newspaper editor would jump ahead of the story presumably cutting out the sex and violent scenes. So when I recently purchased a couple of the collected Modesty Blaise editions it filled gaps in the story that remained a mystery for decades. But it was nonetheless, a joyful and poignant re-acquaintance of a childhood favorite.

In between, Dark Horse sought to fill in the gaps with their own line of original James Bond stories. The one limited series that I collected because I felt it was faithful to what a Bond story should be was “Serpent’s Tooth” as written by Doug Moench and drawn by Paul Gulacy (who also both collaborated on Marvel’s Master of Kung-Fu).

Today, the espionage genre recently made a huge splashing return to the four-colored medium with Image Comics’ Velvet. Written and illustrated by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting respectively, Velvet reunites the duo that revitalized Captain America for the new millennium with its spy thriller feel. One of the seminal arcs of their run, The Winter Soldier, was the basis for the recent hit Captain America sequel. So you know the capabilities of this tag team.

The plot is essentially, “What if Ms. Moneypenny was framed for the murder of James Bond?”

In expanded terms, it tells the story of a retired spy, Velvet Templeton, who finds herself on the run when she is framed for the murder of one of British spy agency, Arc-7’s top agents. Set during the Cold War, the story moves with Jason Bourne like pace – fast and with a lot of over the top action. It’s a complex web that Velvet finds herself caught in but she’s determined to come out on top.

The allure of Velvet is not that the middle-aged protagonist looks like SHIELD’s Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (for the white streak in her hair) but because of the artwork of Epting and the moody but gorgeous palette of Elizabeth Breitweiser who also joined the duo in their famed run on Captain America.

When I used to collect The Avengers, I wasn’t that big a fan of Epting’s work. I loved Operation: Galactic Storm but I felt that his art looked too messy. Like a poor man’s Marc Silvestri.

With Velvet, it is as if I stepped out in a Time Warp or am watching an HD version of some old Bond flick. The art literally jumps out at you. There is no need to point a gun at your head to require your attention, you have it from the moment you spot the cover. Now I know what Epting is fully capable of. And if he doesn’t jump to superstar status with his work on Velvet, I’d call for a hit on the industry awards body that should rightfully acknowledge his greatness.

There are stylish elements that remind me of Gulacy’s work – a little imperfect on the human anatomy that adds to the comicbookness of the book – but I love it. I have always believed that a woman’s imperfections add to her sexiness and desirability. And so it is with Gulacy’s work in which there are traces that can be found in Epting’s oeuvre.

The moodiness of the art is perfect as it adds a lot to the shadiness to the espionage storyline. And there’s an element of cool as we those classic Aston Martins and Renaults to name a few of the slick cars we see.

And thus, Epting easily turns in the best work of his career. Knowing that the book is solicited intermittently to allow Epting enough time to finish these killer pages, it is well worth the wait.

As for Brubaker’s prose… he is simply one of the best to come out in the last decade. A man who can do no wrong as he has turned out great stuff on X-Men, Daredevil, Fatale, Captain America, and now, Velvet.

The first arc collects the first five issues of the surprise-hit series in trade form under the title, Before the Living End.

Suddenly, it is like Modesty Blaise all over again albeit in waiting periods of months rather than a day.

Velvet is a keeper. And indeed, like a diamond, it is forever.


Check out Velvet at your local comic book specialty shop.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A colossal read: Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan

A colossal read: Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan
by rick olivares

I must admit that the sight of a menacing giant with its skin all peeled over -- ala a twisted anatomy lesson -- threatening to break a massive stone wall and the title, “Attack on Titan Colossal Edition” in big bold letters is enough to get my attention. And for me to dig into my wallet.

This volume, written and illustrated by Hajime Isayama, is colossal in size (7x10.5 inches), weight (2 kg), page number (over a thousand pages from the first five books), and price (Php 2,499.00).

Daunting? I read the synopsis and immediately picked it up.

I’ve always been a fan of “giant” literature since I read the Cornish folk tale, “Jack the Giant Killer” (and not oafish Hollywood version that came out last year), as a kid. It was included in a two-volume collection of fairy tales and folklore by Reader’s Digest. So in the years since, I’ve been a fan of Andre the Giant, Marvel Comics’ Giant Man, and Christy Canyon (go figure).

Attack on Titan has those basic elements of Japanese manga and anime culture -- young protagonists versus massive beings in an extinction level event. So if you got a kick out of this stuff as a kid, Hajime-san’s work will keep you riveted (especially when you gravitate to the anime version that is faithful to the book).

The basic plot is how humanity survived an attack by a race of sexless giant beings called “Titans”. They are humanoid in appearance but do not speak nor communicate. It seems that their sole purpose in life is to eat every man, woman, and child like they were munching on cheese sticks; you know -- tasty, easy to eat and you gobble them by the dozen.

For eons, the remnants of humanity lived in peace behind massive walls designed to keep these Titans out. Without warning, the Titans attack and the whole cycle repeats itself. Caught in the middle is young Eren Yaeger who witnesses the tragic death of his mother at the hands of one of the Titans. Eren swears his revenge by becoming a soldier in the Survey Corps. Except that he discovers that he has a direct link to these monsters.

It isn’t only a David versus Goliath story as there’s an element of the anime classic, Neon Genesis Evangelion, where young child pilots have their nervous system synched with massive machines to fight the tall beings called “Angels.”

In Attack on Titan, Eren finds himself able to generate one of these 60-foot giants from his own body while being connected through tissue, cells, and nerves. Because of his iron will, Eren is able to override the basic nature of the Titans which is to wreak havoc and satiate its hunger for human flesh (in the spirit of the recent popularity of zombie culture). The Eren Titan crushes and stomps the giants in his path and eventually presents some form of hope to the human military as a weapon they finally use to do battle the giants on level terms. Yet the military distrusts Eren as the true nature of his being has not been fully explained yet.

So there’s violence and gore. Much like those ancient folklore stories like Jack the Giant Killer that are in no manner a child’s bedtime story.

And… like any good story, you need a Scooby gang and Yaeger’s aides de camp comes in the form of Mikasa Ackerman, an adopted child of the Yaeger family who is fiercely protective of Eren for many reasons. Eren is like the Titans where he is focused only on eradicating them and finding a life outside the walls of his home. He is absolutely clueless about Mikasa’s true feelings for him.

And there’s Armin Arlert, the frail childhood friend of both Eren and Mikasa who bucks his fear of the Titans to eventually join the 104th Training Corps of the elite Survey Scouts. And there are others there – Reiner Braun, Bertolt Hoover, Annie Leonhart, and Jean Kirstein among many others.

The story isn’t simple where its an “us against them” storyline. There are enemies from within and knowing how unpredictable Japanese anime and manga end, there is now way of knowing how Attack On Titan will end. Surely, that will keep you riveted.

Attack On Titan is was the first manga comic tome I had purchased since 2004 when I collected the Battle Angle Alita books. And after devouring it and the first 13 episodes of the anime version in a marathon 24-hour session, all I can say is, I had a colossal time.


Attack On Titan (Colossal Edition) can be purchased at Fullybooked or Comic Odyssey