Rising Stars Compendium Volume 1 – J. Michael Straczynski Fiona Avery

Rising Stars CompendiumAs this contains all of the original series and the spinoffs it’s hard to imagine why it is marked as Volume One. Everything you need for the whole of Rising Stars is contained in this massive doorstop including a comprehensive cover gallery.

This is the softback version so your spine will end up cracking no matter how careful you are. Even the cover is no thicker than a normal TPB. If you are a collector go for the hardback. If you want a cheap and easy way to experience this series then this is all you need.

Thumbs Up!

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Rising Stars Volume 3: Fire and Ash – J. Michael Straczynski

Rising Stars 3

This is the last volume in the series and it does not disappoint. There is plenty of story left to tell and while the ending might not be as dark and gritty as you would like it does certainly maintain the spirt that has pervaded this work.

It begins with an excellent recap for those who put down the last volume some time ago. With less characters now everything seems more focussed. This story has aged and matured and this is the wisest book looking to impart a lesson and maybe some optimism we can all take away.

The art feels just as good and thematic as it always has done. There are a lot of night scenes and plenty of good contrast.

Farewell and Thumbs Up!

Rising Stars Volume 2: Power – J. Michael Straczynski

Rising Stars 2Now the world-building is done and the Specials are no longer kids this really ratchets up a gear. Several gears in fact as politics and humanism enters the agenda. Through a series of twists the action hots up and takes off in a new direction.

Just like the first book this volume has everything dotted and crossed. Things you didn’t realise were being set up in the previous act neatly pop up and dovetail into place. This is a masterpiece of plotting and everything neatly follows on without any jarring deus ex machina. More importantly these are human beings, fallible ones, who don’t always make the right or the expected decisions.

The art is great. Despite the series having several artist changes everything looks consistent and well-polished.

For the big ideas this deserves a Double Thumbs Up!

Rising Stars Volume 1: Born in Fire – J. Michael Straczynski

Rising Stars 1 This collects the first eight issues of the 24 issue series Rising Stars. Normal people get superpowers then it all goes horribly wrong.

It is a dense read both in wordcount and ideas. Having up to 113 protagonists is a hell of an ensemble and following them though their childhood and adult life is a tall order. Straczynski does pull it off by being extremely good at his job. The amount of foreshadowing and flashbacks can drive you crazy in the beginning but once he has hooked you and got you up to speed with what you need to know the ride becomes smoother.

This type of story is something Straczynski has told before in Supreme Power and The Twelve but this time these are his own characters and they are people before they are heroes. It does start off as a whodunit and feels uncomfortably familiar but the twist in the middle takes it in a new direction. You can see this as the blueprint for TV shows like Heroes and the 4400 or even the first season of Smallville as each character has a random power.

The art is strong stuff and you can see Straczynski’s TV background in the composition and cutting between panels. That said he isn’t afraid to drop the pictures and resort to prose having a character’s diary deliver a couple of pages of exposition. This is another indication of the volume of ideas he wants to convey.

The length works well and we reach a dramatic yet satisfying place to end this first book.

Thumbs Up!

The Twelve – J Michael Straczynski

The twelveTwelve American heroes are frozen at the end of the Second World War and defrosted today. What lessons can they teach us about our world?

Straczynski does super heroes very well. He pokes and prods them and lifts the lid on what really makes them tick. At twelve issues we not only have a lot of time to explore the concept of heroes but also hold a mirror up to the world around us.

There is a good story with a mystery to be solved and twelve differing characters to help us understand the human condition. The premise also allows us to compare the allegedly black and white morality of the 1940’s with the world of tomorrow that we read this book in.

The writing and characterisation is superb but an ensemble of twelve really strains things. We do have a protagonist to latch on to, complete with narration. There are also plenty of clear signposts when Straczynski shakes up the timeline and clues to help us solve the overarching mystery.

There is a double ending and although we want to know what happens to the characters after the Agatha Christie reveal it does feel like it runs a little long. Normally cameos distract from a good story but the subtle way other Marvel characters appear isn’t a deal breaker. Various subtle references remind you this story is set “in Universe” but don’t derail it.

The art is great with Chris Weston doing a fantastic job. All the characters are different and there are some emotive facial expressions. The layout is strong and dynamic but never gratuitous. You can tell two veterans are expertly steering this book.

There is an additional prequel story that doesn’t add too much but is a nice filler for those of you who don’t want to let go of these characters just yet. The hardback format and slightly oversize nature of the book are all strengths.

Definitely a Thumbs Up!

Midnight Nation – J. Michael Straczynski

This is a big book, a really big book. I’m not just talking about the three hundred pages, twelve issues, plus covers, plus extras either. This is big in concept, big in ideas and big in existentialism.

A cop investigating a mysterious homicide has his soul stolen and wakes up trapped between worlds. He must then begin a long journey to get back what he has lost. It’s a fantastic idea and although the whole “is this really happening, is he in a coma, what’s going on” has been done before, this is an expert execution. Despite the whimsical premise you are absolutely hooked within pages by the incredible dialog that Straczynski excels at.

The journey continues and becomes more and more abstract until you are treated to a metaphysical sermon about the nature of modern life and existence in general. Assuming you survive this thought summit the story glides to a neat conclusion. You might get lost along the way and probably won’t understand all or possibly any of it but you will certainly have to admit you have witnessed something rather profound. It’s the kind of art that people tell you is art but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

The graphics are really good and as there is an incredible amount of text the pictures work hard using every trick they can to break up the writing as much as possible. There are lots of views looking down, an angle that is rarely used in most comics, that proves very effective in communicating the character’s isolation in this strange new world. It really is worth going back to the book for a second read just to look at the variety of techniques in play here.

As well as the mighty story there is a one shot spinoff, all the sumptuous covers, and J. Michael Straczynski makes possibly the most personal and moving statement by another human being I have ever read as he describes the origin of this book.

This is Sandman sharpened into a mere dozen issues and delivering a razor sharp Double Thumbs Up!

147/218.

Tomorrow: Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian – Alexi Sayle

Supreme Power: Hyperion – J. Michael Straczynski

The prodigal son returns with Straczynski back at the helm, and you can tell. The action resumes after Hyperion’s departure. The General recruits four new individuals touched with super powers from the arrival of the alien ship. These four characters were glimpsed at the end of High Command so we get the feeling this is a continuation of an epic tale as opposed to a sequel-for-cash book.

The most intriguing character is Dr Emil Burbank. Every super we have seen so far has physical abilities now we see one with a mental power as his gift is to be the smartest man on the planet. Unfortunately Emil is self centred to the point of being a sociopath yet that doesn’t stop us rooting for him. A human nuclear bomb, an obese man made of silly putty and a woman who can subtly manipulate reality just don’t fascinate us as much as a man who can think his way to achieving any goal – including bringing Mark Milton back into the fold.

Although there is a new artist he does a great job of preserving the existing characters and styles. There are no snazzy tricks to confuse you just excellent illustration. As one of the characters is a quantum physicist this does mean a lot of lengthy explanations which does kind of break the show don’t tell strength of comics but this is kept to a minimum. Yes it’s another Thumbs Up to go on Straczynski’s CV.

39/326.

Tomorrow: Supreme Power: Nighthawk – Daniel Way

Supreme Power: High Command – J. Michael Straczynski

All good things come to an end and this is the concluding volume of the excellent Supreme Power trilogy. In this we learn how you hurt an invulnerable man and what he will do in return. We see racism rear its ugly head but tackled with grace and aplomb by a skilled writer. You learn how a government deals with its dirty laundry and how far it will stoop to fight fire with fire. This is a gripping storyline with one major flaw – it comes to an end.

This feels like an unsatisfactory ending too. Part of it is that you are enjoying it so much you want more and part is because there are too many loose ends. Some characters have been given so little development they might as well not have been created in the first place. Were they just window dressing or Deus ex Machina. In some ways the story is so grand Straczynski painted himself into a corner and nothing could justify such an awesome build-up. But maybe this is real life at its most real. Maybe all endings aren’t neat or happy and we wish somehow things had worked out differently.

The art once again is perfectly functional and includes some competent touches with flashbacks and so on. There are no fancy storytelling gimmicks like the last volume but some interesting dialogue uses to allegorise parts of the story. You do certainly want more and I will be checking the spin-off titles. Until then it’s definitely a Thumbs Up from me!

37/328.

Tomorrow: Doctor Spectrum (Supreme Power): Full Spectrum – Sara Barnes

Supreme Power: Powers & Principalities – J. Michael Straczynski

This is the second volume of the superheroes in a realistic setting story from J. Michael Straczynski. The hard work of the first book in introducing the characters, setting and hooking you in is over and this book puts the pedal to the metal. To say this work is a page turner is an understatement. Everything but the plot is put on the back burner as Hyperion finds out the truth of his origin and sets about kicking arse.

That’s not to say the thorny and emotive issues that exemplified the first book are abandoned. In this chapter we see what happens when bad people get superpowers and what it takes to join lonely heroes together. Some of the background characters we saw earlier also come to the fore and complicate things.

The art is just as capable as ever and it seems the artist is getting a bit more freedom to flex creative muscles. The last chapter sees an unusual presentation technique. Each page contains four panels and each panel is telling a different story in a different place at the same time. I am all for innovation in storytelling but reading this page per page is very confusing and you end up reading each story to the end then going back and starting on the next whilst trying not to look at the other three panels on the page. I am not sure how successful this technique is but it is not something you could do in a film or traditional novel. Only in a graphic novel where the reader can choose their path could this be appropriate so I applaud Straczynski for maximising his medium; something few writers bother to do. Considering how riveted I was reading this it is absolutely Thumbs Up!

36/329.

Tomorrow: Supreme Power: High Command – J. Michael Straczynski

Supreme Power: Contact – J. Michael Straczynski

Super hero re-imaginings or super bashing is now quite an established genre. As the capes enter the post-modern era, and more importantly the mainstream media, the original fans now want something different. We have seen heroes, anti-heroes and now it seems we crave realism or scepticism when it comes to our fantasy figures.

J. Michael Straczynski takes the well told story of a baby from another world falling to earth and growing into a man of immense power – a superman. Rather than being raised anonymously by adoring middle-American parents he is raised by the US government. It is a paranoid government starting with Jimmy Carter and shaped by Vietnam and the Cold War. They see him as their property, their asset, to be used for their greater good. He is kept in a Truman Show style bubble and spoon fed values straight from “The Waltons” or “Little House on the Prairie.” Eventually he is put to work both publically and secretly.

You can tell Straczynski is a Hollywood scriptwriter as his stories aren’t mere cartoons. His characters and stories have true depth and display real emotions. This isn’t 244 pages of 2D heroes and villains having a massive punch-up. This is an examination of identity, heroism and a realistic inquiry into how we treat those different to ourselves.

The “super-man” isn’t the only character with powers as several others emerge allowing us to explore various origin stories and see how different personalities react to unlimited power. What comes across is the fact that being special makes you incredibly lonely and the more super a super-human is the less humanity he is treated with. The touching part is seeing these isolated individuals reach out to each other. There is an ensemble cast and as such things progress slowly but as there are many more volumes for this story to run you don’t mind. There are plenty of in-jokes and comic lore references and even the heroes themselves are based on established icons (man who runs fast, man with alien gizmo, baby from outer-space, billionaire with no powers but high-tech gadgets, etc.) but this is a strength.

The art is excellent but not innovative or unique. The words clearly come first but there is only as much dialogue as their needs to be. It is quite cinematic in places but the simple style compliments the story rather than hinders it. I am definitely looking forward to the next volume so it is definitely a Thumbs Up from me!

35/330.

Tomorrow: Supreme Power: Powers & Principalities – J. Michael Straczynski