Thursday, June 24, 2010

ALA Annual 2010 - Washington D.C.

To quote Rogue from the X-Men early nineties cartoon, "He's runnin' for Congress!" Or that's what keeps going through my head as I prepare for the annual conference of the American Library Association. This year, it's being held in Washington D.C.

This won't be the first time I've been to the state capital. Since I'm originally from New Hampshire, I lived close enough that we took the fateful 8th grade trip I'm sure many kids on the east coast probably remember. That was the one time I went and it was many, many years ago. I'd by lying if I said I wasn't a little excited. This will be my fourth ALA conference. I also have a feeling it might be my last one for awhile, as I can't afford to go to places like San Diego and New Orleans without being in some serious financial turmoil.

This is also the first ALA conference where I have surprisingly little to do. When I was in Boston last spring, I was primarily concerned with committee meetings for the Stonewall Book Awards which took up the majority of the time I was there. When I went first to Philadelphia then to Anaheim in 2008 the first and foremost task on my mind was getting a job. This will be the first time I won't be scrambling around trying to 'accomplish' something. I will be attending the Stonewall Book Awards Brunch, since it really is a celebration of my committee work from last year. I'm also hoping to finally meet Adriana Trigiani, who will be both at the HarperCollins both on Sunday, then reading from her book later on.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

VINTAGE - Teen Titans, the Judas Contract

I know last week I revealed my love for the Boy Wonder, but today I'm going to spend some more time gushing over Batman's junior partner: Robin, and all his friends. I didn't really discover The New Teen Titans until I was well into adulthood. Marv Wolfman and George Perez were the creative team assembled to come up with a teen superhero book that rivaled Chris Claremont's unstoppable Uncanny X-Men. In this story, The Judas Contract, the came pretty damn close.

Tara Markov. Or "Terra" as she came to be known. the newest Teen Titan, a group of teenage superheroes mostly made up of some of the most notable heroes in the DC Universe. Robin, Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash are all on the team, along with some Wolfman and Perez originals Starfire, Cyborg, and Raven. Rounding out the team is Changeling, who contemporary audiences know better as "Beast Boy" from the popular animated series of the same name. Terra is not only the newest member; she's also the youngest as well as the most secretive. While most of the Titans embrace her, especially Changeling [who shares a pretty passionate kiss with early on], she fails to win over the emotionally crippled Raven who can sense some kind of darkness surrounding her. Raven isn't sure if her own innate evil nature is the real problem, so she fails to alert the other Titans until it's too late... and Tara is revealed as the partner and lover of Slade Wilson, better known as Deathstroke the Terminator.

Deathstroke is fulfilling his late son's contract on the Titans. Using the irredeemably evil Tara to infiltrate the team, they learn all the secrets and strike when they are individually at their weakest. The only one who gets away is Dick Grayson, who has recently given up Robin identity because he feels he's grown out of it. After being approached by Slade's ex-wife Adeline and her son Joseph, he adopts the new superhero identity of Nightwing. Joseph has his own considerable powers; he can become intangible and "possess" people after making eye contact. The pair join forces to rescue the Titans. They are initially defeated by Terra. However, "Jericho's" possession powers catch the villains off guard and when Joseph possesses his father and attacks Terra, he convinces the young villain that her partner has betrayed her. Terra then goes completely off the handle and tries to kill all the Titans. Barely escaping, the team watches in horror as Markov's powers consume her. Cursing them with her final breaths, she does from a landslide she herself causes. The Titans don't make betrayal public, and decide to honor her with a memorial commemorating her as a Teen Titan.

This story is kind of disturbing. Tara is introduced as a completely evil villain with nothing that redeems her in the end. Wolfman introduced her as sort of a dark version of the X-Men's Kitty Pryde. While Kitty was super sweet and everything that the X-Men embodied, Terra was the polar opposite of the Teen Titans: deceptive, manipulate, and crooked. She was also "involved" with Slade Wilson, a man basically old enough to be her father. This collection is notable for including the origin of Deathstroke and the first appearance of Grayson in his "Nightwing" identity. Some of the dialogue suffers from severe eighties, especially when the Changeling makes a joke. There's also a lot of cornball humor and colloquiums. The best single issue is probably when Tara visits all of the Titans in their civilian identities, using her "camera lens contacts" to document their lives and learn the frailties. You get insight into each team member here and actually feel kind of bad for them that they are trusting a person like Markov. The story was adapted for the second season of the Teen Titans cartoon, updating many of the elements to make them more current. They also make the animated version of Terra not completely evil, which definitely sits better internally with me.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

CURRENT: Annexed by Sharon Dogar

Before I even get started, I would just like to take a quick minute and thank the YA Book Blog Directory for listing me in their index. Y'all know I love tooting my own horn, but it's a quiet toot when no one is reading. I'm glad that I'm listed at this index, since it means more people will be able to find my little corner of the internet and read about my reading. I'm all about access, people.

I suppose we should take a time out to talk about what I'm reading. I did start a new young adult novel post Book Expo America 2010. The title, Annexed by Sharon Dogar, was one I had high hopes for. I'm over 50 pages into it now. It's kind of bumming me out. While that's not unexpected with the subject matter, I'm not a big fan of the protaganist. He's just not that interesting. While I do believe that some women can write men and vice versa, Ms. Doger is definitely having a problem with it in this book. Peter is just way too emotional. While it could be argued that it was a very emotional time, I think a switch from first to third person might have been a better decision for the early chapters of this novel. I think I'm going to put it down for a bit, let it sit in my head for awhile, then give it another chance. I'm just kind of disappointed I'm not liking the book as much as I thought I was going to.

My graphic novel re-reading has been moving in full-force, as you can see from the many, many updates my blog has already had this month. I'm focusing on two of the bigger works I have left, namely Marvel's X-Men: Fall of the Mutants and DC's New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. I'm working a Sunday overtime shift on Staten Island today, so I brought the latter along for some light ferry reading. Some of the '80s dialogue is just atrocious, especially in the Titans where it borders on corny. I hope you guys are enjoying my 'vintage reviews' - I'm really enjoying writing them.

I'm also looking to expand the scope of my published review sphere. While I will still continue to write for School Library Journal as long as they will let me, I also recently submitted an application to review YA & Children's materials in Booklist. If you know of any source that is currently looking for reviews, please contact me through e-mail or through the comments section here. I am very interested and would be really appreciative. It does kind of limit what I can review and write here; if I do actually like a YA book, I'm usually reviewing it for SLJ or talking about it on my library's official blog. This has become more of a space for personal book reflection, out-of-print comics, and books I hate or dislike. Maybe that ultimately makes it more interesting to read.

Feedback, as always, is appreciated. Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, June 11, 2010

IN REVIEW: The Seven Rays

Every so often, a piece of young adult literature is published that turns out to be spectacular. It has well developed characters, a cohesive plot, and makes you stop and think about your own personal teen experience. It's a book you can't wait to finish, a book that you can barely put down.

The Seven Rays by Jessica Bendinger is not that book. Not even a little bit.

In a word, it sucks. I know that's a harsh word, but it fits. Beth, the novel's protaganist, is actually kind of a bitch. There's nothing throughout the story that makes her endearing or even kind of likable. She's supposed to be smart, which from the novel's first person perspective comes off as condescending. She also apparently has no social skills. While her best friend and her mother are supposedly the most important people in her life, she constantly complains about them and ultimately treats them like crap. I hated her, and it was almost physically taxing to continue reading in her narrative voice.

Some novels have crappy protaganists, right? At least the story can be good! If that's the bright side you want to look on, The Seven Rays is going to disappoint you yet again. Whatever story this book was trying to tell, it got lost totally and utterly. Beth has some sort of power that is supposed to allow her to see the emotional connections between people. See what I just said there? That's not even in the book, so I'm not sure if it's even correct. In fact, Beth's powers are so ill-defined that thinking about them right now is giving me a migraine. While some times, her powers are so overwhelming she thinks she might go insane, other times they turn off with no explaination. She can also control lightening some how at some point towards the end, or at least focus it on the guy who's not her boyfriend.

Richie. Previously mentioned not-boyfriend guy. Let's not even get to him. Okay, let's. Talk about your 2-dimensional supporting characters. If it wasn't for Beth, Richie would have nothing to do. He uproots his life out of nowhere, breaks Beth out of an insane asylum (yeah, that happens), then basically takes her on a road trip where we learn nothing about him. Except his mom is an alcoholic, which I guess is supposed to make him sympathetic even though it's really not gone into detail. He can read Beth's mind for no reason, so it basically makes them both annoying at the same time. Also, he doesn't become his own character. So he reads like a tool. I guess it could be worse. He could be like Beth, re: above bitch.

The fact that I hated this story so bad is kind of upsetting. I met Jessica Bendinger in December of last year and found her to be delightful. When she described the story and read an except, she made it sound much better than reading the novel turned out to be. In fact, I'm now slightly embarassed for her. She talked about doing a series of these books, which from the book not ending, I'm going to guess the publisher was planning on, too. I really hope they don't make a sequel. In the past two years, this is most definitely the worst young adult novel I've read.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

VINTAGE - Robin Year One

Batman Schmatman. If it came down to which character I really love in the dynamic duo, it hands down has to be Robin. Let's face it, the Boy Wonder rocks. He's a pre-teen, butt-kicking superhero in his own right.

Robin Year One by Chuck Dixon deals with the early days of Dick Grayson donning his mask and tights. Narrated by Bat-butler Alfred Pennyworth, this trade paperback deals with some of the early reactions to Batman suddenly having a little kid he introduces around as his "partner." Jim Gordon, still a Police Captain and not yet a Commissioner, seriously has a problem with it. Gordon and Batman are barely on speaking terms over the whole thing. Meanwhile, the recently escaped Two-Face sees Robin as an easy target, ultimate proof that the Batman "has a heart." As the Joker rises as Batman's ultimate villain in most of the great stories, it's really Two-Face here who is this Robin's primary antagonist. In this tale he is one scary dude. Or is it two dudes? I always get confused when it comes to good ol' Harvey Dent.

Besides the looming threat threat of Two-Face, Robin also faces off solo against the mind-controlling Mad Hatter and the chilling Mr. Freeze. New villain Shrike, a child stealing killer from the League of Assassins, also lends an element of danger towards the tale's climax. There's also fun cameos from villains like Killer Moth, the original Blockbuster, and The Joker. The graphic novel includes a lot of foreshadowing moments which, if you read a lot of Chuck Dixon's contemporary work on the Batman titles, make you smile with childlike glee. Also when the Joker says he called "dibs" on Robin, it's slightly disturbing; it is the smiling clown who is the villain that ultimately kills Grayson's replacement, Jason Todd, after the latter assumes the Robin role. It's interesting that Batman is relegated more to a supporting role, with Alfred featured more as the person taking care of Dick and forming an interpersonal "fatherly" relationship with him. It's obvious that Dick being in Wayne Manor makes both Bruce and Alfred happier, and "lightens the mood" - which was the whole point of Robin's creation in the first place.

I don't usually gush about the art, but here? It's good. Beatty's style initially looks simplistic, but once the action starts happening, your mind fills in all the blanks between his pointed panels of intense physicality. When Robin is taking down Shrike's kiddie ninjas, or leaping out of the way of Mr. Freeze's ice gun, you are right there with him every step of the way. Some scenes, especially as Robin sneaking up on people, don't even have words on them; you really don't need any further explanation. He constantly has characters drawn partially obscured; when Robin is "fired" for instance, you see the tears streaming down his face but not his actual eyes. Two-Face is often shown part-in focus, depending on how monstrous Dixon is writing him in the particular part of the story. It really sets the scene for Dick one day becoming Batman, which if you read current issues of "Batman" out by DC Comics, you know is the current Bat-plan. It's worth trying to track this one down, buying it, and then loving it for all time.

Monday, June 7, 2010

VINTAGE - Age of Apocalypse, X-Calibre

Let's go back to a magical time; it's the early nineties, and the X-Men still have a kickass cartoon on FOX's Saturday morning line up. With the resurgence of interest in the merry band of mutants, the editors of Marvel Comics did several creative storylines to highlight what was the best selling group of comic books in the world.

None of these events were better than the "Age of Apocalypse" - a crossover between all the X-books where reality was changed for the worse. David Haller, the bastard son of Charles Xavier, was a schizophrenic psychopath who was comatose after an encounter with the X-Men and the Shadow King a few years back. When he wakes up, he decides he's going to make his dad love him. How is he going to do that you ask? Well, obviously kill Xavier's greatest enemy: Magneto. So David goes back in time, as X-Men villains often do. A cadre of X-Men follow him back, but fail to stop him at every turn. When he finally closes in on an early twenties before-he-was-evil Magneto, Charles jumps in the way... and David accidentally kills him. Which is cool, because right before David blinks out of existence, he realizes he just made sure that he had never been born. This? Is all background before the actual story I'm really going talk about begins.

This particular collection, which temporarily replaced Excalibur for the four months AoA ran through the X-Men titles, focused on the X-Man Nightcrawler. While still an X-Man in the story, this Kurt (with the last name "Darkholme" here instead of Wagner) is a much darker and violent character. If you point your finger at him, he's probably going to teleport away with it and call you "rude." While our Nightcrawler is usually portrayed as a character who tries to get you to go to mass every Sunday, this particular Kurt "hates churches." Magneto, leader of the X-Men in the Age of Apocalypse, dispatches Nightcrawler on a solo mission to find the mutant precog Destiny. The time traveling Bishop from our world has shown up in this brave new depressing one and is ranting about a world where Xavier never died, and thus Apocalypse did not conquer most of North America. While Kurt really isn't into the idea of making the world a better place, he is motivated to find his mother Mystique, who serves as kind of a pirate leading refugees to Destiny's antarctic refuge nicknamed "Avalon." Mystique is the only person who can identify Destiny and one of the few people who knows how to get to Avalon.

Hot on Kurt's trail are the Pale Riders, which consists of AoA versions of Danielle Moonstar and Deadpool, the latter wittily named here as Dead Man Wade. That's just more fun to say. Wade is kind of a crazy mess, especially since Danielle like to periodically torture him and see how fast he heals. Leading the motley crew is a mutant named Damask, a professional pixie and Apocalypse's go-to gal when it comes to murder and mayhem. When Danielle keeps torturing Wade after Damask tells her to stop, Damask ruthlessly kills her. That's just what kind of girl she is. She also develops an unhealthy obsession with Kurt, imagining that his blue skin probably feels "just like velvet." Several characters who could be overlooked show up in supporting roles throughout the story, including John Proudstar, Callisto, and Doug Ramsey. Juggernaut, who isn't even named here as such, serves as one of Destiny's flock and leads people to Avalon on the tail end of their journey. There's also another original character in Switchback, a white-haired mutant from Detroit who can shunt back her "personal timeline" up to ten second prior. When she has a headache, she uses her power, going back to a time before it started to hurt. I really liked her.

Warren Ellis, the writer of X-Calibre, was doing cool things with Excalibur around this time. He had recently introduced Pete Wisdom, the hot-knife throwing secret agent from the UK who also had a naughty relationship with Kitty Pryde. Excalibur hadn't been selling as well as Marvel hoped in the post-Claremont era, and it was really Ellis's job to make the team interesting again and tell some dynamic stories. This diversion into an alternate world shows his strengths. By focusing on the one character and not a team, he really shows us just how different this alternate Kurt is. And while things really are opposite here, such as Nightcrawler and Mystique having a loving mother/son dynamic of once, it really doesn't feel that way when you're reading the story. I also really liked that Ellis took the opportunity to create two entirely new characters here, an opportunity that was neglected during the "Age of Apocalypse" because I guess it was more fun to see alternate versions of all the characters we had seen already.

While the trade collection of X-Calibre by itself is long out-of-print, Marvel Comics has recently published omnibus editions of the entire "Age of Apocalyse" saga following it's tenth anniversary. Jeez, I remember when these single issues were first published. I feel old. Anyway, my point is that this is one of few stories you'll actually be able to track down if you really want to read it. I recommend giving this alternate world a chance since many of the X-Men, Nightcrawler included, were super badass.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

VINTAGE - New X-Men, Childhood's End

Contemporary X-Men stories can be tricky. Most people don't do them right. Chris Claremont is a hard act to follow, and the humanity that writers like Scott Lobdell gave each of the X-character in the mid-'90s already seems like ancient history. Every so often, however, you come across one that's kind of awesome. Such is the case with Childhood's End, a collection of New X-Men comics following the "M-Day" Marvel Comics event that took place a few years ago.

To many regular readers of this book, this collection was probably kind of annoying. It was one of those "we are going new direction" moments for Marvel. One of the early strengths of the New X-Men title was all the amazing supporting characters, mostly mutant students, that you got to meet attending the Xavier Institute. "M-Day" was an attempt at making a mutant over-populated Marvel world less populated. As such, the Institute went from having hundreds and hundreds of mutant students to having less than 40 overnight. Chris Yost makes this an interesting story point; Mercury and Wither, two students in Emma Frost's "Hellions" class, are the mutants who really hate the powers. So, they are two of the few that get to keep them. The "morning after" panels following the initial shock and confusion of the de-powerment of most of the school is one of the best issues of any X-Men comic ever. Some students are ecstatic; other are crying. Some, we don't even know what they're saying. Some students aren't recognizing each other. A student with a "living shadow" power is grief-stricken, continually calling back his shadow that will no longer come. Beast is saving students off the roof who are convinced they can still fly, and Wolverine finds a mutant with water-based powers dead in the school's pool. Kevin Ford, the aforementioned Wither, believes his powers are gone, too. He reaches out to the girl he likes, Laurie, and destroys her right arm with his death-touch. Telepathic Headmistress Emma Frost's nose is shown bleeding as she can't block out the mental panic from the student body.

X-23, who becomes a student at the school in this collection, is kind of a you-either-love-her-or-hate-her character. Her inclusion seems kind of forced; Wolverine gets Cyclops on his side, and Cyclops and Emma are essentially fighting about Laura being in the school every time we see them. With mutants being de-powered everywhere, it should make sense to Emma that the Institute should reach out to as many mutants as possible, but whatever. It also seems a little weird that Wolverine and Cyclops would be on the same page here, especially with their animosity in Whedon's Astonishing X-Men (at least the first issue) which chronologically wasn't that far from this moment. I do like X-23 and Dust being paired together as roommates, sort of the odd couple friendship that Kitty Pryde and Illyana Rasputin shared in the 1980's. The looming threat of William Stryker in the background, culminating in him finally making his opening attack on the school at the end, is well-paced throughout. The ultimate group of seven mutants who become the "team" by the end; X-23, Surge, Elixir, Hellion, Mercury, Dust, and Rockslide were probably the best choices for the group. I like Kevin running off and encountering long-forgotten X-villainous Selene in the subsequent story following this one, but a "What happening with Wither?" more often would have increased the story's value for me. I also kind of wanted Anole on the team, which he more or less joins around the future X-Infernus story anyway.

Ultimately, this line up of the team doesn't really last. The X-Men aren't even at the Xavier Institute anymore. Dust and Rockslide both get drafted into a newer New X-Men team with a lot of original characters who, in my opinion, just aren't that appealing. I wish stories with this group would have continued for a good few years with maybe the roster changing slightly every so often, but not so much that there wasn't stability to the core book. The truth is that Marvel wants the current X-Men titles to have their own version of DC's Blackest Night, and none of the current stories; the "M-Day"s or "Manifest Destiny"s or "X-Infernus"s are measuring up. Yost was clearly trying to have his own version of Clarmont's New Mutants in this post-"M-Day" world. It's sad he couldn't continue with that because I think it would have been great. Still, it's fun to go back and read these stories and imagine all the potential that was there and all the great things that could have been.