Thursday, April 3, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

It is hard to talk about the movie Capt. America- The Winter Soldier without feeling like you are going to have to throw in some spoilers, and no doubt there will be critics and reviewers who will do that. Some may not even be aware that the information they share will be spoilers unless they are very familiar with the Marvel Universe movies and the Marvel Comics universe.
 Comics fans are going to be very pleased with this movie. Chris Evans continues to prove he was the right choice for Steve Rogers as he shows our favorite super soldier struggling to know where he stands in this new world he is in. "It's not so bad," he tells Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie). "The food is better. Back in my day we boiled everything." But deeper for Steve Rogers are the questions of why he became Captain America and why did he and the Howling Commandos fight Hydra? Did the victory they won still have an impact today- culturally, socially and politically? Or has the world in general chosen to hand over liberties and freedoms in exchange for a sense of security and safety?
  Despite being the "Boy Scout" of the Marvel Universe (in comics and movies), Steve/ Captain America shows he really is a super soldier. The speed and intentional ferocity that Cap hits opponents with was reminiscient of the early books by Jack Kirby who drew the character with a reckless, no holding back abandon. There is Cap on a motorcycle versus a SHIELD attack plane, Cap versus a round from a grenade launcher, Cap versus an elevator full of trained and armed operatives, Cap versus a missile, Cap free-falling into the ocean from a plane, Cap versus a ship full of pirates, Cap versus Batroc and of course, Cap versus Winter Soldier. Throw in several instances of Cap versus gravity and you appreciate the durability, smarts and courage Cap has. The movie also showcases just how important the shield is to Captain America.
 Winter Soldier gives us our first looks at several key characters to the modern Captain America stories- Agent 13, aka Sharon Carter, Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, and Brock Rumlow, the man who will become Crossbones.
 Arnim Zola's return is a clever nod to the design of the comics character, and the movie is full of "easter eggs": mentions of Tony Stark, Iron Man, Howard Stark, and Stark Industries run through the movie. One agent mentions Stephen Strange. Nick Fury makes a passing reference to Dr. Bruce Banner. The old SHIELD logo and acronym appear in the movie, and the Avengers get a mention as well. 
Black Widow has become Cap's right-hand partner at the start of the film. The two are an interesting dynamic with Cap trying to be true to his ideals and do what is right in this new world, and Natasha trying to find her real identity after so many years of having to make herself into whoever she has to be. There is an underlying spark of potential romance, but... Sharon Carter is in the movie but is really underutilized. She gets a passing conversation with the Captain and starts a Mexican standoff, but really her introduction in this film just sets the stage for future appearances.
 Perhaps the most emotional and haunting scene is Cap visiting a very old and frail Peggy Carter. "I've lived a full life," she tells him. "My only regret is you didn't get to live yours."
 Robert Redford nearly steals the show and gets much more screen time than I was expecting. His role as SHIELD's diplomatic secretary and head of the council that oversees SHIELD (and Nick Fury) becomes central to the action of the movie.
 For those looking to find things to discuss after the film, there are questions raised about loyalty and trust, does "what is right" ever change or is it absolute, what things require sacrifice, and what is the price of freedom contrasted with the cost of security are just a few things to get you started.
 There is plenty of  violent action with hand-to-hand fighting and explosions but very little blood, very little in the way of harsh language, no sex or nudity. Instead there is a solid storyline that moves things along, has plenty of surprises and is very satisfying in the end. See it, It is well worth the price of a movie ticket!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Show YOUR Shield (@ your library!)

    A few posts ago I wrote about comic artist Al Bigley and how he created the "super hero card" for the Union County Public Library system. The card was such a success it got the attention of Marvel Comics! More specifically, their publicity arm, who has been busy promoting Captain America- The Winter Soldier. Marvel is teaming up with the library system for a special campaign called "Show YOUR Shield." The shield in this case is the library's super hero card. Patrons who have not picked up a super hero card yet, can still do so. On Saturday, March 29, from 2-4 pm, patrons are asked to show their shield (card) at the Main Library in Monroe, NC and they will be entered into a drawing for two tickets to an early showing of Captain America- The Winter Soldier on April 2- two days before the movie premieres nationally!
  But that is not all! Cosplayers and kids with costumes- come dressed as your favorite Marvel Comics character to win great prizes like t-shirts, posters, buttons and more. And one winner will receive a special grand prize!
Here is the official marvel explanation of Cap's shield.
  So, just like an ongoing Avengers comic, the power-enabled super hero card reveals a new plot-twist power in getting people early access to major media events of the Mighty Marvel style! 'Nuff said, true believers?

Cap says, "Show YOUR Shield!"

American Dream says, "Remember to wear your costume! I mean uniform! It's a uniform gosh-darn it!"

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Review: Hidden

Among graphic novels about the Holocaust, Maus by Art Spiegelman is probably the standard by which all others are measured. Magneto: Testament is, believe it or not, a fine (but very depressing) work on the Holocaust as well. But neither of these books is a great way to introduce younger readers to the Holocaust and the toll it inflicted on so many. Fortunately, publisher :01 Books has stepped forward not once, but now twice, to bring the horror of war to the level of younger readers. Many people may recall the three-volume series Resistance by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis which is great for kids about 10 and up.
 Now, :01 Books has released Hidden by Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo.
 Hidden is deceptively simple in its presentation with people having bobble-doll sized heads and bobble-doll sized bodies, inked line-work and flat, often monotone coloring like the older comic strips. A second look allows you to see the amount of detail poured into each frame and the expressions and emotions being played out on each person's face.
 The story centers around a little girl named Dounia, somewhere between six to nine years old, living in

France when the Nazi occupation and the Vichy government begin their persecution of the Jews. It begins with the wearing of a yellow Star of David and is followed by public segregation. Dounia is no longer allowed to talk to her friends or walk with them, she must sit in the back of the classroom, she and her family are confined to small parts of their town. Finally, the police come for the family. Desperate, her mother and father hide her away in the apartment but are arrested themselves. From there, Dounia relies on the kindness of strangers who stand up to the Nazis the only way they can- by helping each other. Dounia has her name changed and is taken in by a new couple who move her out to the countryside where she is safer. the efforts to keep Dounia safe and hidden are amazing, and a note at the end of the book says her story is based on histories collected from survivors and those involved in hiding the Jews. About 84% of the Jewish children in France were never arrested by the Germans or the Vichy government- a testimony to the fortitude of the French people to refuse to give in to evil.
 The most shocking part of the story is when Dounia's mother is found alive. It will shake you.
The story of Dounia is told without rage, or gore, or a lot of violence. It is the war seen through the eyes of a child living everyday in uncertainty.
 The book not only serves to be a great starting point on the Holocaust for younger readers, but can be appreciated by older readers as well as it offers a look at the war rarely seen. Hidden is out April 1. It contains 80 pages in full color and carries a suggested price of $16.99.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen

This might be one of the most clever covers of the year.
The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff is one of those books you open up not really knowing what to expect.  China is a country of a billion people. China is a communist nation with its own version of capitalism. China is a nation that seems to be the economic engine for the rest of the world. All of these things- good and bad- help define China to the modern world. But China is an old land with old traditions and beliefs, and this book uses that clash of worlds to move the story forward.
 Deshi is a young man, and it seems he is struggling to become a pilot in the People's Army. His older brother Wei teases him and the brothers begin to fight when Wei falls into the path of a jeep and is killed.  When Deshi breaks the news to his family they are devastated. It seems Wei was the favorite child and the one who was most successful in their parents' eyes. They even tell Deshi they would rather he would have been the one to die instead of Wei. Wanting to provide for their favorite son in death, the parents send Wei on a quest to find the corpse of a female- preferably young, attractive and unmarried- to be married to Wei in death so he is not alone for eternity.
Some of the brilliant colors in the book.
 Lily is a poor farmer's daughter (from the illustrations it looks like the farm grows dirt or flat land- hard to tell) who longs to get out of her stark and simple existence. When Deshi encounters Lily, he kidnaps her with plans to kill her on the way home, ensuring that he delivers a fresh and beautiful corpse bride for his brother. Along the way, the couple encounter palm readers, monks, and survival in the outdoors. They learn about each other and share their hopes and dreams and they fall in love. The are pursued by Song, a man who finds brides for the deceased and doesn't quit a job until it is done and by Lily's father- a massive man with a stone-angry face. Deshi and Lily must now trust each other to find a way out of their predicaments and bring about a happy ending for each other.
I was expecting more supernatural elements to the story- China seems to have a strong reverence for ancestors, and I thought it would be interesting to see their interaction with the real world- would they approve of what the Deshi and Lily did? Would they help Lily's father? Would they encounter any demons or monsters from Chinese lore?
 Alas, the entire story is set in modern, but very rural China where progress is coming, and many of the old ways are going away if they are not to the advantage of those who can use them, i.e., the landlord who will agree to extend the Chen's lease on the land if they will give him Lily as a bride.
 I have to admit, I was not a fan of the art style, but it became less distracting as the story continued to build. I was also captivated by the use of the watercolored tones and use of white space on the pages.
An example of the great use of white space.
 This is an older teen book at best with a lot of adult themes- sex, language, smoking, drinking, murder, black market dealings, etc. but it is an engaging look into Chinese life and culture and the importance that is placed on tradition and the deceased. If you want a story that exposes you to different values and thinking, then The Undertaking of Lily Chen is an excellent resource that will also be an enjoyable reading journey.
 The Undertaking of Lily Chen is published by :01 Books. It is 430 pages of full color art, has a suggested retail price of $29.99 and will be released for sale on March 25.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Superhero Library Cards!

If you missed the event this past Saturday, March 1 at the Union County Public Library in Monroe don't worry. The superhero cards have arrived at the rest of the libraries!

 What makes these library cards "superhero" cards? These cards are loaded with superpowers. A regular card gets you a check out limit of 35 items, allows you to reserve up to three items, and can give you a day's grace to return items. The superhero card raises those limits to 40 checked out items, five reserves and two day's grace! The powers last for a year, the same time a standard card is good for before it gets updated. The cards cost $3, but that money will go to purchase early literacy computers for the library system making your purchase of the card a heroic action!

 Cartooning Club friend and patron saint Al Bigley designed the card incorporating the different media the library utilizes into the picture- print, audio and digital/online. Reflecting the growing presence of females in the graphic novel marketplace, Al also made sure there was a guy and a girl superhero on the card.

 Al also signed a number of the posters of the card, and these are still available at most of the branches free when you pick up your card while they last! And if you pick up your card at the Marshville, Waxhaw or Union West (Indian Trail) libraries this week, your name will go into a drawing to win a signed copy of Al's comic/graphic novel Geminar!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Grouping heroes based on origins

 I was recently involved in a discussion over at Comic Book Plus about Golden Age superheroes who were attached to a supernatural origin- coming back from the dead or being given power from a ghost, demon or angel for examples. It got me thinking about other origins and I began to come up with categories for them.

 1) And the Geek Shall inherit the Earth! (Science and tech geeks.) Whether intentionally trying to develop a device or if it is the happy accident of an experiment gone awry, a lot of heroes get their powers via this method. Plastic Man and Daredevil were bathed in chemicals, Captain America, Power Nelson and Luke Cage received "treatments" that made them into heroes, and Hour Man and Black Terror were part of a group that whipped up their own ingestible power concoctions. Others, like Iron Man, Deathlok and Cyborg were the direct result of technological advancements or necessities.

2)BabyI was born this way! Aliens like Superman and Martian Manhunter join earthlings like the X-Men and mythical characters like Wonder Woman and Thor in this origin set. They simply are this way- no flight suit or vitamins needed.

3) Very Superstitious. (Magic and Supernatural.) Characters who have trained in mystic arts like Dr. Strange and Zatanna fall into here with other characters "chosen", blessed or cursed with their new found abilities. Deadman, Etrigan, the Spectre and Capt. Marvel join this group along with characters who receive the "power cosmic" like Beta-Ray Bill and the Silver Surfer.

4) They have Mad Skillz! The most dangerous of all because this group isn't super-powered and so they get underestimated. These are the people who have trained a lifetime to be the best at doing damage. Folks like the Punisher, Black Widow, the original Daredevil and the original Atom. An argument could be made for Batman, unless you place him in the science and tech group.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: Olympians- Aphrodite, Goddess of Love

  George O'Connor has taken on quite an undertaking in creating a series of graphic novels on the Greek pantheon, each book focusing on a different deity. His latest book is perhaps his boldest to date, tackling the story of the goddess of love. Previously featured characters like Zeus, Hera and Athena figure prominently in the story adding consistency and familiarity to the book for those who have read the series.
  While she is a late-comer to Olympus when compared to the other gods, Aphrodite's origin story goes back before the time of even the Titans. Even so, finding acceptance and equal footing among the gods is not easy, but the goddess of love is a wily manipulator who isn't just another pretty face but someone who is smart and confident. And speaking of pretty faces, Aphrodite is a stand-out beauty compared to the other goddesses. With her tan skin, piercing green eyes and flowing brown hair, O'Connor captures a goddess who is beautiful, feminine and exotic.
  All of the previous entries in the Olympians series have been able to tell their stories effectively while still managing to be kid-friendly, but can a story about a goddess who is unfaithful to her husband and who embodies all aspects of love- spiritual, emotional and physical- still be appropriate for all ages? Amazingly, O'Connor pulls off the feat tactfully without dumbing down the material. Aphrodite's hair is long enough to fall strategically across her body  as she emerges from the sea, and Aphrodite's marriage to Hephaistos is described as more of a political tool by Zeus to prevent the gods from squabbling over her and not something either part of the couple wanted. Despite their flaws, Hephaistos tries hard to make Aphrodite happy and she seems to value him at times despite being repulsed by his appearance and his workplace.
 As part of Aphrodite's narrative, readers are treated to the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who crafts a statue so beautiful her falls in love with it and begs Aphrodite to bring her to life. The marriage of Thetis and the antics of Cupid are also included. Maybe most important of all, we are introduced to a man named Paris, the apple of discord and the beginnings of the Trojan War.

  Hermes is a character that really emerges in this story and he seems to stand out with his casual attitude and anachronistic speech. Hopefully, O'Connor will be doing the messenger god's story soon.

Early cover concept. Go to for George O'Connors tale of the cover(s).
 Overall, Aphrodite continues the solid work done by O'Connor, with tight clean art with bright, vibrant, contrasting colors and witty dialogue.  There is 66 pages of full color story, followed by 10 pages of background information on key mythical figures in the story, asides on Greek culture and notes on selected panels in the book that help to add further meaning to the story. Aphrodite is published by :01 Books and carries a cover price of $9.99.