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Kid Dungeon Master’s Neighborhood Reign: Nostalgic Confession Inspired by “Die”

Die 1!

Teen RPG fan Solomon brings foreboding gameplay setup to Die #1. Art by Stephanie Hans, words by Kieron Gillen, letters by Clayton Cowles.

1. A Long-expected Party.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: my annual comic book reviews included a promise of a future entry inspired by Die, the new Image Comics series by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans that I encapsulated like so:

What if you took the structure of Stephen King’s It, but instead of fighting a murderous super-clown, the kids and adults in their respective eras were reliving the ’80s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon as a horror story, and the Big Bad was Tom Hanks from Mazes and Monsters turned into a truly mystical, manipulative interdimensional overlord?

Painted art by Stephanie Hans is like a high-end gallery showing on every page, while writer Kieron Gillen is engaging in ambitious, phenomenally detailed world-building, worrisome in its six-digit word count and rising. He’s exploring fantasy tropes and toying with them from within, but he’s also designed an entire RPG from the ground up to facilitate his vision, one that’s dredging up so many childhood memories for me — some I would dare label “definitive” in regard to my personal backstory — that I’ll need to devote a separate entry to this series in the near future. I have a lot of baggage to unpack here, and I blame Gillen for wheeling the baggage cart right up next to me.

I had the pleasure of meeting painter Stephanie Hans at this year’s C2E2, where I gave her the elevator-pitch version of this entry and she encouraged me to share it. I got a kick out of meeting Kieron Gillen at C2E2 2013, where we briefly chatted about his Britpop-magic fantasy Phonogram and he asked me which character I identified with most. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to it and was ashamed to have no answer, either prepared or improvised. I’m not used to pros at a con asking me a question beyond “Where are you from?”

(Having had time to think later, my answer came to me, obvious if twofold. As a young adult from 1989 to 2000 I imagined myself Seth Bingo, self-anointed tastemaker and DJ, bringing my boom-box and tapes/CDs to entertain at work after-hours — no requests allowed, sharing my collection with peers who just didn’t get me or my nightly playlist. For my life 2000-present I’ve been closer to Lloyd, engaging with music intellectually via long thinkpieces written only for the audiences in my head, but rarely physically and never socially, thus arguably denying its greatest powers. If only I could’ve written all that on an index card before approaching Gillen’s table. Or narrowed my answer down to just one of those two alienating dudes.)

The farther I’ve read into Die, the more I’ve found myself reflecting on my own experiences with Dungeons and Dragons, an integral part of my preteen years. It was a compelling confluence of entertainment and imagination. It was a big hit with the other kids who joined in. It also ushered in the end of my circle of childhood friends.

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The C2E2 2013 Music Panel: Our Disappointing Photo Collection

When my wife and I attended C2E2 last year, I only made time for two panels: the Marvel NOW! panel that spotlighted their Infinity event and other upcoming new series; and a themed panel comprised of various creators with music-based projects on their comics resumé. I was more excited about the latter panel and its guests. When we got home and uploaded our photos the next day, I was chagrined to discover that this photo set, above all others, was the least impressive. I forget which happy album eventually cheered me up — possibly They Might Be Giants — but eventually I recovered. The experience gave me fond memories while serving as an unwanted learning experience.

Despite the morose expressions, I promise there was much joy and music-geeking to be had from listening to these fine talents:

C2E2 2013 Music Panel

This way for a closer look at two Marvel writers, an editor, and several power cords!

San Diego Comic Con 2013: the Best and Least-Best News as Seen from the Cheap Seats

Godzilla movie teaser poster, America, 2014Anyone who followed the entertainment news as it flooded out of 2013’s San Diego Comic Con found themselves shocked and surprised by two or more bombshells dropped from above, as the movie and comic book companies kept trying to top each other with the Greatest Announcement of All.

My general impressions follow of what stood out to me most, whether good, bad, or both.

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C2E2 2013 Photos, Part 5 of 6: Actors and Creators Who Made Our Day

Continuing our coverage of last weekend’s fourth annual Chicago Comic and Entertainment Exposition (“C2E2”), this episode covers the sci-fi actors and comic book creators we met this year. With one exception, all of these were folks we’d never met before. My wife wanted to meet a few veterans of the Star Wars saga; I wanted to meet writers and artists responsible for great works.

Highest priority on my own list: British music journalist turned comics writer Kieron Gillen. His two-year run on Journey into Mystery turned Kid Loki into one of the funniest, most heartbreaking characters in the Marvel Universe. His creator-owned Phonogram (two miniseries and counting) is a sharp fantasy mixing music, magic, and the people who live for both. Current gigs include Iron Man and Young Avengers, which both tend to rise to the top of my weekly reading pile.

Also: my favorite photo of the weekend. If you haven’t read at least one of his books, you’re what’s wrong with comics.

Kieron Gillen, C2E2

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How Will “Marvel NOW” Affect My Marvel Now?

Comics readers are well aware of Marvel Comics’ new initiative, “Marvel NOW”, which will see many of their current series ending and restarting by year’s end with new #1s. Obviously this creative/financial decision wasn’t borne in a complete vacuum, separate and unaware of DC’s New 52 relaunch stunt in 2011. However, the Marvel titles on my current pull-list number twice as many as the DC titles that were on my pull-list prior to the New 52. Marvel NOW, then, stands to have a more noticeable effect on my buying habits. This time, though, I’m not yet feeling as grumpy as I should.

One of the most important differences between the New 52 and Marvel NOW is that the latter won’t reset all histories and character developments to square one. The Marvel Universe will continue forward in time and space, though I’m sure new events will rock some foundations. Another important difference: I’m excited about a few of the new creative teams. When weighing the entertainment viability of new comics, artists’ names don’t factor into my decision-making process as heavily as they used to. I follow writers more than artists or characters nowadays. I realize a majority of fans will remain flocked around their favorite hero regardless of whether or not the creative team can form complete sentences or depict more than two facial expressions. That’s just not how I manage my buying habits anymore. I was a hardcore Spider-Man fan for all of childhood, but no way will you convince me today to buy a comic just because Spidey’s in it and no other reason.

When I perused the list of New 52 teams last year, at least two-thirds of the writers fell somewhere between “Meh” and “Who?” for me. Marvel NOW, on the other hand, has a few choice names on deck. I don’t think all the new titles and creative teams have been announced yet, but I’ve seen glimmers or promise in the announcements to date. (Mark Waid writing the Hulk? SOLD.)

As of June 2012 I was collecting five Marvel series and one miniseries. In the past two weeks I’ve added two new series to my pull-list on a probationary basis. My current Marvel monthly experience is comprised of the following titles:

Journey into Mystery: Kieron Gillen’s final issue will be October’s #645. The solicitation copy doesn’t say it’s the final issue. Either that’s an oversight or Gillen is handing the reins to someone else. I should’ve known that something would happen to the series after I went on record and proclaimed it my favorite Marvel series of the moment. The innocuously devious Kid Loki and Hela’s bitter handmaiden Leah have made a great not-couple throughout their misadventures in godhood and questing…at least until the events of #641 ended in quiet tragedy and shattered the status quo. Whenever I express happiness about a title, this is exactly what happens. Clearly I have only myself to blame for this. We’ll see what happens in the November solicitations, I suppose.

Invincible Iron Man: Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca will conclude their four-year run (or is it five?) and the series with #527. I was more blown away in the early days when Fraction brought the noise with hard-SF sensibilities and real-world tech developments that appear just about never in any other comics today. (I blame Warren Ellis for allowing other mediums to lure him away with cash and booze.) Over the last few arcs it’s become increasingly more and more about watching Tony struggle with demons he didn’t know he had, but in the context of (a) Marvel’s big crossover events, and (b) the kind of scenario I hate hate HATE where all the hero’s villains team up against him. It’s a personal pet peeve that would take too long to explain here.

That being said, it’s still above-average for super-heroics, and I like to think that the remaining issues will continue tying all those years’ worth of strands together into one neat, eye-popping bow as Tony and his amazing armored friends work up to their final showdown with the Mandarin and his Iron Man Revenge Squad. The best is yet to come, though: with Marvel NOW, the writing reins will be passed to the aforementioned Kieron Gillen. I’m pleased and thinking about camping out at my comic shop in November. (Well, not really. Still eager to see it, though.)

Daredevil: Unaffected by Marvel NOW. Mark Waid and his rotating artists (all ranging from above-average to brilliant) will be allowed to continue uninterrupted with their portrayal of the most optimistic Man Without Fear I’ve ever seen. In a hobby with so many sullen, grimacing heroes, the new Matt Murdock borders on revolutionary.

Venom: Current symbiote host Flash Thompson has become my go-to when I want a sullen, grimacing antihero. Though the series is presently mid-transition as outgoing writer Rick Remender passes the torch to Cullen Bunn, so far it hasn’t lost its stride. It’s been alternately inspiring and tragic to follow Flash’s struggles with his family, his new Avengers teammates, and his general unease with super-powered heroics after losing his legs at war. The original Eddie Brock version was anathema to me, too emblematic of all that went wrong with Marvel in the 1990s, but I’ve been surprised at the damage control this series has managed so far. This is especially unusual for me because I’m otherwise not too keen on antiheroes anymore.

Venom won’t be a Marvel NOW do-over, but there is a crossover on the way that threatens my reading pleasure called “Minimum Carnage”. The concept sounds cute (Venom Goes to the Microverse), but I’m leery after my disappointment with comics crossovers in general and last year’s unwanted “Circle of Four” six-part fiasco in particular. I’ll give it a chance, but my expectations are low.

Dark Avengers: Someone felt my rollicking Thunderbolts saga had to be refitted with some other team’s name in order for it to continue. The team had already been split in twain for the last several months — one half in the present carrying on the good fight, the other half traveling uncontrollably backwards through time. The present-day good-guys half has now been usurped by the return of the government-run Dark Avengers, populated by members I don’t recognize and don’t feel like looking up. Since this technically already relaunched while retaining the original Thunderbolts numbering, Marvel NOW apparently won’t be intruding here. I’m still debating whether or not I’ll be standing by this till then to confirm if it does.

Captain Marvel: Carol Danvers’ promotion from Ms. Marvel to full-fledged captain is a demotion from her previous rank of colonel in her military career, but the new series, which just launched in July, is a step up from what few Ms. Marvel comics I’ve sampled before now. I only bought #1 because I sort-of distantly know one of the four fan artists who contributed pin-ups on the back page, but the comic itself ended up commanding my attention, too, with a lead character who’s strong-willed without being hateful, fiercely independent without being an angry loner (some male heroes should try this sometime), and mostly avoiding the kind of embarrassing fan-service art and costuming that precludes me from buying most other super-heroine titles. Great start.

Hawkeye: The arrogant archer’s new solo series kicked off this week under the reunited Iron Fist team of Matt Fraction and David Aja. I’m a little underwhelmed at Hawkeye playing the same kind of ill-fitting urban-hero premise that previously sank Herc and Black Panther. I’m even less impressed that the denouement in the first issue involved Our Hero saving the day with lots of Avengers cash. If only the White Tiger had been a multimillionaire, perhaps Marvel editors could have tuned that instrument a little more finely, instead of trying to turn established heroes into their answer to Batman. On the plus side, I do love the Daredevil: Born Again look, Fractions’s typically sharp dialogue, and Hawkeye’s new canine pal. #2 might be worth a look-see.

The Muppets: I know it’s only a four-issue miniseries and not remotely connected to Earth-616. I don’t care. Marvel is supplying me with more Roger Langridge funnies. I doubt we’ll see more Muppet work from him ever again, so I’m savoring this while I can and mentioning it to anyone who’ll listen.

…and that’s it. Initial prognosis: Marvel NOW may not hurt me after all. Its timing may coincide with other changes in my buying habits, though. Reply hazy, try again later.

This PR stunt might rock my world more uncomfortably if I were following more Avengers or X-Men titles. Luckily I’m not. The short answers about that are: I’ve never been enthusiastic about paying four bucks a pop for multiple Avengers titles per month; and I pretty much gave up on any hope of returning to full-time X-fandom sometime back in the late ’80s while Chris Claremont was still at the helm.

(I’ll admit I was tempted to see how Kieron Gillen might play in the X-Men sandbox. I resisted the temptation anyway.)

Two Panels to Show Why “Journey into Mystery” is My Favorite Marvel Series

The Marvel’s The Avengers film series may have turned Thor’s half-brother Loki into a sinister household name (beyond those households who knew a thing or two about preexisting Norse myths, anyway), but in my book the eminently watchable Tom Hiddleston takes a back seat to my favorite Loki of the moment, the young reincarnated star of Marvel’s Journey into Mystery.

After the events of the 2010 major crossover event Siege, Loki was dead and gone after one final, uncharacteristically heroic act. As one would expect from Norse gods and their closest family, this condition was temporary. Through machinations of his own, Loki was quickly reincarnated. Through machinations not of his own, his new form is a younger, more naive version of himself with no magic power and no memory of the pain and suffering that his past self’s countless treacheries have inflicted upon others over the years. Kid Loki has spent his new life in a series of misadventures, saving lives, worlds, and entire Marvel crossovers through his uncanny knack for duplicity and shrewd deal-brokering for the greater good, despite the fact that no one trusts him and too many would love an excuse to kill him again.

In the current status quo, Kid Loki is now in the service of the triumvirate of All-Mothers who rule earthbound Asgard while Odin is occupied elsewhere. Along with him for his escapades is Leah, servant of Hela, who’s close to li’l Loki’s age, has magic power a-plenty, and pretends to hate his guts even while she reluctantly ensures his continued survival. Watching over his shoulder is an Asgardian blackbird named Ikol, who acts as an enigmatic, disturbing sort of Jiminy Cricket. Occasionally there’s also Loki’s li’l puppy Thori, a mixed-breed hellhound/Hel Wolf who breathes fire, speaks entirely in Grand Guignol death threats, and is as cute as a button.

The latest arc, which just began this month, tasks Loki with a trip to England to assist its current pantheon against an invasion from a new would-be pantheon called the Manchester Gods, who exist as enormous walking cities (think Howl’s Moving Castle) that draw believers to them and away from their previous beliefs. What seems by my crude American understanding to be a fun riff on intense soccer fandom begins with Loki and Leah journeying at the All-Mothers’ request as a godly covert-ops team to assist the elder British powers behind the scenes while Asgard’s public rulers pretend to follow the Prime Directive and abstain from direct meddling.

Their arrival is England happens like so:

Herne the Hunter waits patiently for his prey. I mean, passenger.

I’m a big fan of Kid Loki’s merry sense of adventure and unbridled optimism, staples of the series under the guidance of writer Kieron Gillen (whose creator-owned Phonogram was epic and whose first Marvel series S.W.O.R.D. was unfairly kneecapped) and artist Rich Elson (with the occasional guest artist). With mythic grandeur undercut by frequent bouts of sharp wit, Loki’s crew traipses across dimensions, infiltrates the realms of dreams in a respectable homage to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and even makes Marvel events like 2011’s Fear Itself more enjoyable by filling in their much-appreciated backstory. (If you wanted to know why Odin’s brother the Serpent was subjugating superhumans and laying waste to Earth, nowhere but in Journey into Mystery were we offered keen insight as to just why.)

For certifiable proof of how attached I am to this series, I can add only this: “Exiled”, the recently completed multi-part crossover that JiM shared with New Mutants, will be the only crossover I read in full this year. I bought and enjoyed every chapter even though I’ve avoided X-Men titles for years. I’ve dropped some Big Two titles as a result of crossovers, and intentionally skipped chapters of other crossovers on similar fussbudget principle. Only “Exiled” earned a pass from me as I grow weary of such needless marketing complications, because I suspected it would raise the bar. When it instilled new relevance into the lost myth of Sigurd and wrapped up the tragic arc of the man-hating undead Disir, I loved seeing my hunch pay off.

In the wake of Siege, all throughout Fear Itself, and on into “Exiled”, Journey into Mystery proved itself so exceptional at what it does, its magic touch makes any other comic next to it even better.

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