Review Date: Thursday, January 19, 2012

Here in Bongo Congo

Good King Leonardo offers-up for your reading enjoyment this week the following four reviews featuring a wide variety of new-issue comic book titles:

Blue Beetle #1
Publisher: D.C. Comics
Tony Bedard: Writer
Ig Guara: Pencils
Ruy Jose: Inks
Pete Pantazis: Colors
  DC Comics has recently revived and re-booted its popular Blue Beetle title as part of "The New 52" restructuring of the DC comic book universe.  For the uninitiated, the latest fictional version of this superhero is Hispanic teenager Jaime Reyes, who lives in El Paso, Texas and lives a life similar to Marvel's original Spider-Man, trying to juggle the personal life of a high-schooler with his superhero duties.  Although the new Blue Beetle title is up to monthly issue #4, its early enough in the series that I decided to jump back to issue #1in order to get a clearer reviewer's feel for this effort to re-structure the previous series.  The new title is scripted by Tony Bedard with pencils by Ig Guara, inks by Ruy Jose and colors by Pete Pantazis.

      Issue #1 is a revised origin tale of how Jaime became the Blue Beetle.  The origin plot is essentially a three-act storyline.  Act One is a science fiction flashback, as we learn that the high tech scarab that will eventually give Jaime his superpowers originated ages ago as an alien weapon wielded by a very nasty alien race called The Reach, whose goal is to conquer and destroy all intergalactic races.  Act Two unfolds Jaime's pre-scarab high school life, reintroducing Blue Beetle readers to his best friends/sidekicks Brenda and Paco along with Jaime's parents, his little sister and Brenda's mysterious Aunt Dona Cardenas, who in previous editions of the Blue Beetle title is revealed to be a very evil player in the supervillainess world.  Act Three is a fast-action story segment, in which Jaime and Paco stumble-into an ongoing theft of the Blue Beetle scarab orchestrated by Dona Cardenas, which concludes with the scarab burrowing into Jaime's spine and transforming him into the new teenaged version of the Blue Beetle.

     I was a huge fan of the previous edition of this title, in which veteran writers John Rogers and Keith Giffen produced about three dozen issues between 2006 and 2009.  Last week, I re-read the very high quality "Road Trip" story arc from issues #7 through #12 to compare to this title re-boot.  While in my reviewer's opinion the previous Rogers-Giffen edition is a better-crafted all-around story series, there are many positive points to make about issue #1 of this new edition.  The creative team sticks with presenting the basic structure and character personalities of Jaime's civilian life, which is a wise move given the entertaining story possibilities that can be explored with Jaime, his family and friends.  What we really have here is just a new creative team picking-up a new story arc within an existing title that's been revived with re-numbering of the monthly issues, which overall is not such a bad thing.  In a published interview, writer Tony Bedard states that he wants to emphasize more action and adventure in the new series.  As such, the main revision to the new series is the addition of a more intense element of action and fighting not seen in the previous series edition.

     The end result in the premier new Blue Beetle issue is a balanced blend of old-Jaime story universe with new-Jaime action and adventure.  So a definite positive thumbs-up recommendation to check-out issue #1 of this new title, which succeeds by preserving a lot of the good stuff from the previous edition while introducing a new, higher level of superhero action and adventure.  And when you're finished reading issue #1, there are still copies of issues #2 through #4 available on the new issues shelves at That's Entertainment.

Shinku #4
Publisher: Image Comics
Ron Marz: Writer
Lee Moder: Art
Matthew Waite: Inks
Michael Atiyeh: Colors
  Image Comics recently published issue #4 of its Shinku title.  An inside-the-front-cover narrative helpfully updates the onging story arc entitled "Throne Of Blood" from the first three issues, informing us that Shinku is a young female modern-day samurai who as the last survivor of the Tadaka samurai clan fights the Yagyu clan of vampires.  Previously, Shinku recruited American immunologist Davis Quinn to her cause in the hope of developing a vampire-killing virus.  By the end of issue #3, Shinku was attacked and badly wounded by the vampire ronin Sakura.  The series is written by Ron Marz with art by Lee Moder, inks by Matthew Waite and colors by Michael Atiyeh.

     The issue #4 story segment advances the Shinku-versus-vampires bloodfest from the previous issue.  The first third of this story segment is action-oriented, as both Shinku's ally Oshima and Davis Quinn come to our hero's rescue, killing a bunch of vampires and retreating to safety so Oshima can treat the badly-wounded warrior.  The mid-section of this story segment is more introspective, as Davis Quinn conducts an extended philosophical monologue over the unconscious samurai, examining their predicament and hoping that all will work out o.k.  Our final story section refocuses on the vampire world.  When the vampire ronin Sakura reports failure back to his clan head vampire Lord Asano, the big guy decides to take matters into his own extremely-clawed hands.  The issue ends in a dramatic cliffhanger as Lord Asano attacks our trio of good guys, continuing the warfare into next month's issue #5.

     I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this comic book as much as I did, moreso than I initially expected to.  Given the "Mature Audience" warning inside the front cover, I expected a completed gore-fest that would no doubt be short on decent plot and heavy on blood 'n guts.  While the bloodiness is front and center, its not presented at a gross-out level.  A-list writer Ron Marz is also at the top of his writing game in delivering a script that nicely mixes quality dialogue, interesting plot and fast action.  I particularly enjoyed the varied personalities of the story characters, particularly the threesome of sharp-tongued Shinku, her stoic friend Oshima and the American Davis Quinn, who ironically works all day with blood as an immunologist but is squeamish when the blood flies as the samurai swords and vampire fangs are wielded.

     My only constructive criticism is that given the amount of sexual story content mixed-in with the buckets of blood, the "Mature Audience" warning should be posted on the front cover rather than too discretely tucked-inside the jacket.  But that one item aside, the three elements of interesting samurai/vampire genres mix, strong writing and quality artwork all combine to earn this comic book a well-deserved thumbs-up positive review recommendation.  And as one last review comment, there's an interesting back-of-the-book mix of post-story stuff to read here, including two nice sketchbook pin-ups, an impressive one-page gallery presenting this month's covers of all 36 Image Comics titles and an interesting brief interview with comics writer Ed Brubaker.

War Goddess #0
Publisher: Boundless Comics/Avatar Press
Writer: Mike Wolfer
Pow Rodrix: Art
     The Boundless Comics imprint of Avatar Press is currently publishing a new sword and sorcery-themed comic book entitled War Goddess.  At first glance, the comic looks like a knock-off of DC's Wonder Woman, particularly due to the premier issue's front cover, but the comic actually focuses on the modern-day adventures of the Greek mythological figure Pandora, of "opening Pandora's box" fable fame. Apparently, Pandora has been the main comic book character published by Avatar Press since the mid-1990's and as such this is just the latest of many series starring this heroine.  The kick-off issue #0 is written by Mike Wolfer with art by Pow Rodrix.

     The premier issue plot interweaves two storythreads.  The first sub-plot lays-out the basic premise of Pandora functioning in today's world.  Here, she's a billionaire adventuress who is so wealthy that she isn't even aware of the extent of her world-wide corporate holdings.  We're also introduced to a few of Pandora's human sidekicks who are unaware of her true background, along with Emma Harrow, who's also an immortal mythological figure whose identity I won't reveal in this interview as a spoiler.  The second sub-plot introduces the action-adventure; while excavating an archeological dig in Bolivia, Pandora is contacted by Emma regarding a disaster unfolding as a physics lab experiment within Pandora's company goes awry in Bermuda.  The result is an opening into "dark matter" and other dimensions, thereby reopening in a scientific manner the "Pandora's Box" dimensional rift which our heroine supposedly spent centuries fixing.  By issue's end, both Pandora and Emma are poised to address the disaster, as one of their human female sidekicks has already been converted by the box re-opening into a super-powered villain.

     This new title gives us a fresh and entertaining remix of the often-presented comic book theme of ancient Greek story figures functioning in today's world.  The art is high quality and the story is very detailed and engrossing in explaining to the reader both the back concept of Pandora's history and establishing her current reality of world-wide adventure.  I got a particular kick out of the strong blending of modern-day science with concepts of Greek mythology.  Writer Mike Wolfer is very creative in establishing the mainstream scientific activities of particle accelerator research having the Greek mythological consequence of re-opening Pandora's box.  The result is a successful melding of hard science and fantasy similar in style to some scripts in the Atomic Robo comic book, a strategy that works very well for both titles.

     My only review criticisms are two-fold.  First, its kind of ridiculous that all of the women in this comic book are supermodel gorgeous and end-up running around with hardly a stitch of clothing on; while its visually pleasing for fanboy reading and apparently a tradition in the long history of Pandora comics, the over-the-top dumbness of it takes something away from the quality of the storytelling.  Secondly, the "War Goddess" title is ill-fitting for this comic book, which could lead to a dismissal by potential readers unfamiliar with the publishing history of Pandora who might mistake the title as a Wonder Woman comic knock-off. A much better and accurate title would be to stick with "Pandora."  But both of those comments aside, the good story stuff here makes it all the worthwhile not to miss-out getting on the bandwagon of this new title and seeing how the new modern-day adventures of Pandora unfold in each monthly issue.

Lobster Johnson #1
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Mike Mignola & John Arcudi: Writers
Tonci Zonjic: Art
Dave Stewart: Colors
Dark Horse Comics has just premiered issue #1 in a five-issue mini-series starring Lobster Johnson.  For the uninitiated, Lobster Johnson is a 1930's crimefighting detective-noir character from Mike Mignola's Hellboy comic book universe, who operates outside the law as a vigilante, killing criminals and burning his trademark lobster claw insignia as a calling card on his victim's foreheads.  This latest Lobster Johnson mini-series is co-scripted by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and John Arcudi with art by Tonci Zonjic and colors by Dave Stewart.

     The multi-issue story in this series is entitled "The Burning Hand."  The issue #1 story segment centers on Herald Tribune reporter Cindy Tynan, who's investigating a murder mystery on the Lower East Side of 1930's-era New York.  While at first it seems as if there's a ghostly paranormal element to the murder, Cindy quickly discovers that the entire episode is an organized crime scheme to lower real estate values and scam property owners in the neighborhood.  As Cindy follows a step-by-step trail of mystery, readers are introduced to several supporting story characters, including black businessman Harry McTell, crime boss Arnie Wald and a mysterious Nazi figure who will most likely become more active in upcoming installments of this mini-series.  By issue's end, Cindy's sleuthing lands her in mortal danger from the crime syndicate, just as Lobster Johnson arrives on scene for a rescue.

     This is one of those infrequent comics (at least in my opinion) in which the script is significantly elevated to a higher level of storytelling quality by the unique quality of the artwork.  Croatian artist Tonci Zonjic has produced wonderful work on such varied titles as Divas, Planet Of The Apes and Who Is Jake Ellis?; here, he brings the perfect visual style for portraying the 1930's Art Deco/Detective Noir world of New York crimefighting and murder mystery.  His mix of visuals and facial expressions in combination with colorist Dave Stewart's perfect choice of color tones combines with the co-writer's script for a well-paced kick-off to a multi-issue old-school crimefighting adventure.  While Lobster Johnson himself only makes two very brief appearances in this issue, that story structure actually succeeds in establishing the detailed cast of characters on a solid storytelling footing for our vigilante hero to come center stage for the next four issues of the series.

     As a final review heads-up, just a note that its also worth checking-out in the back of this issue a four-page exclusive preview of a new Conan The Barbarian series adapting Conan creator Robert E. Howard's "Queen Of The Black Coast" story series.  This interesting-looking new title is scripted by well-known writer Brian Wood with art by Becky Cloonan and colors by Dave Stewart, and is scheduled for an issue #1 release on February 8.  So definitely add Dark Horse's latest Lobster Johnson title to your ever-growing new comics reading pile and also keep an eye out in February for this new Conan series!

Contest Winners Announcement!!!

     Our latest contest challenge was our annual call for submissions for "The Year's Best" comics for the 2011 calendar year.  Since we didn't have a winner of our previous column's trivia contest, the Bongo Congo panel of contest judges was able to roll-over that contest prize and thus award two prizes for this contest (yay!).  So our co-winners for their entries for year's best comic or comics of 2011 are (drumroll, please)...Mike Dooley and Gregory Goding.

     Mike submitted three comics for his year's best, telling us in his own words "Marvel's mini-series Mystery Men capitalizing on the resurgence of pulp heroes is very well done.  The ongoing Star Trek book by IDW is a great idea and a "fascinating" (to steal a phrase from Mr. Spock) series.  But the #1 book remains The Stand, Marvel's masterful retelling of the Stephen King novel."  Gregory tells us that "my favorite comic of the past year is (Marvel's) Red Skull Incarnate series...I particularly like the way they treated the fall of Johann Schmidt into the evil Nazi Red Skull as it is believable and really brings out what makes the Red Skull ultimately tick...the covers are amazingly done...overall, it's a very well done series even if it is quite short."

     Congratulations to both of our winners, who each receive $10.00 first prize gift certificates to That's Entertainment, for each nominating worthwhile comics and making worthy explanations for why these comics are at the top of their reading piles for 2011!

New Contest Announcement!!!

     Let's cleanse our comic book reading palates with a simple trivia contest this week.  Your challenge is to e-mail us at Gordon_A@msn.com no later than noontime on Wednesday, February 1 with the correct answer to the following trivia question: Which is the only state among the 50 states in America where coffee is grown as a commercial crop?  As always, in the event of multiple correct entries, the winner of our first prize $10.00 gift certificate to That's Entertainment will be selected via a roll of the dice from among the correct entries.  Please note that the gift certificate is redeemable for regular retail merchandise or in-store ongoing specials, only.

     That's all for now, so have two great mid-winter comic book reading weeks and see you again on Friday, February 3 Here In Bongo Congo!!!

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