Thursday, January 3, 2013

DIGITAL-ONLY THRILLS: EDISON REX

 

EDISON REX (Monkeybrain Comics, 2012)      Issues #1-5 available through www.monkeybraincomics.com  and www.comixology.com Written by Chris Roberson. Art by Dennis Culver. Colored by Stephen Downer. Lettered by John J. Hill.

After decades of reading comics, I sometimes wonder why I still pursue this hobby. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love this form of artistic expression and the power of text and art working together to create a linked visual and mental impression. It’s a remarkable way to tell a good story, and a method that originated in the United States. I still follow comics because when it works right it can’t be beat - - - and when that happens I can never get enough of it. EDISON REX has it working.

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After all these years, are there any elements that the best comics (the ones that I have the highest opinion and favored memory of) seem to have in common? Well for one, they need to be entertaining. Sometimes the writers use symbolism to make a statement or leave a message. That’s a nice enhancement to a good story. But the story is the main thing. It needs to have structure, a defined conflict and resolution, and it needs to flow. Sometimes writers and/or illustrators get too engrossed in their artistic statement and forget the story-telling elements. That can put a halt to the entertainment value. They also need to engage our attention. Sometimes creators forget that readers need to be given a reason to care about reading more, at the very least for the next issue. There are many ways that writers do this, including leaving clues/hints in the story or revealing just enough detail to create further questions that readers want to stick around and get the answers for. Pulling the readers in is often best accomplished by creating characters that they can relate to and care about, or at least have an interest in seeing how they resolve the conflict. A plot line that seems to meander or go on and on forever (several mega-events come to mind) can make readers lose attention. Gratuitous sex and/or gratuitous violence, blood and gore certainly will get some immediate attention, but there has to be some substance to the story, something to make the readers stay engaged.

I am thrilled to discover the fun of reading EDISON REX, because the creators seem to understand those two above principles so well. I am entertained every time. I am also engaged and especially invested in the main character. I care about seeing what happens next and where this is going.

After reading the first issue of EDISON REX, most experienced readers are going to be reminded of a classic conflict from the Golden Age of Comics. One of the earlier protagonist’s names also rhymes with one of the current protagonist’s names. And the name of the other early character evokes a similar kind of image when compared to the modern character’s name. Actually, just reading the summary on the Monkeybrains website tells you everything you need to know and seems to indicate what comparison is being made =

“Edison Rex is the smartest man in the world, a criminal genius, and the arch nemesis of the world’s greatest protector, Valiant. Having dedicated his life to defeating Valiant and proving once and for all that he is a menace to humanity and not a hero, what will Edison do once he finally succeeds? And with Valiant out of the way, who will be left to protect the Earth?”

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     Engaging the reader does not mean the writer has to be super-serious or grim and dark as relates to the subject matter. EDISON REX is a fun, tongue-in-cheek book that seems aimed at all ages, and will especially be appealing to younger readers. It’s a great platform to introduce to students with tablet computers who are curious about super-hero adventures. Older readers will also appreciate it because of the memories it evokes in addition to the basic story. After reading Issue #1, I was immediately reminded of some classic DC 12-cent comics of my youth, with simple complete-in-one-issue stories and covers that stimulated my sense of wonder. I often couldn’t wait to see what situations would occur next as new issues continued the never-ending conflict between Superman and Lex Luthor. Some resolution is achieved each time; yet the conflict is always later renewed (generally in the next issue). As I keep reading EDISON REX, more of those favorable memories are returning. As scripted by Chris Roberson (former writer of ACTION COMICS, as well as iZOMBIE, ELRIC and MEMORIAL) each issue is a self-contained story that moves things a little further along every time in a logical manner.

EDISON REX is a classic battle for public recognition between two massive egos. What makes it unique is that one of the protagonists has been taken out of the picture, but the battle still continues. Nothing else seems to have changed. The general public’s memory of Valiant is so favorable it cannot be overcome by the efforts of Rex, who continues to be perceived as a villain in spite of the changes he puts in place. This is the crux of the book, and the element that makes it so entertaining and engaging. It opens doors to all possibilities of story without resorting to imaginary situations. Back over at ACTION COMICS, the only way that Superman or Lex Luthor could be terminated would be in an ELSEWORLDS tale.

The art team does a fantastic job of depicting Roberson’s visions of this world. Dennis Culver’s art style looks like the perfect blend of cartoonish illustration and more mature work, similar to the way ARCHIE COMICS morphed Eastman and Laird’s adult style on the original TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES into something more appealing and acceptable to the ARCHIE COMICS core audience. It’s a perfect fit for the semi-serious nature of EDISON REX and will remind many viewers of the classic animation style Hanna-Barbara Studios adopted for their mid-60’s superhero/action/fantasy television cartoon series (Johnny Quest,Thundaar, Space Ghost, etc.) Some of the character and monster depictions in the first five issues of EDISON REX also remind me favorably of images from the DOCTOR WHO series as well as THE HITCHHIKER”S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY.

ALERT : SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

ISSUE #1 HIGHLIGHTS: What I noticed after several issues has its’ beginnings here. Edison Rex rarely gets his hands dirty. He seems able to accomplish his goals by talking or thinking his way out of a problem or letting others do the physical work or fighting for him. He is able to persuade Valiant to his point of view so much that Valiant is convinced he’s become a threat and takes action without Rex having to lift a finger. But does Rex truly believe everything he has told Valiant, or was it a clever made-up campaign? Roberson’s scripting leaves some doubt here, whether deliberate or not I’m not sure. There are other scenes in the coming issues that make me wonder if Rex believes everything he says. That keeps me coming back to find out. Also, I’d like to know if Rex sincerely intends to take over for Valiant as the new protector of the Earth, or does he plan to soften up the masses before taking over control of the planet? There is no given explanation how Rex came to have an armored green-skinned bodyguard/sidekick with a light saber and an aggressive conquering demeanor that reminds/resembles some super-powered wonderful women at the big two comics companies. She also has a great name: M’Alizz.

ISSUE TWO HIGHLIGHTS: Rex goes up against the Nuclear Norseman, a bearded radioactive Viking trying to ransom a school bus of children in exchange for a billion dollars. Oops, my theory’s not looking so good because Rex gets physical here. M’Alizz seems to believe that Rex really intends to conquer and wonders when he will do so. The media gets it wrong, and broadcasts reports of two villains having an argument. An intergalactic subplot is brewing on the last page, sure to come into play later. This issue introduces a back-up feature -  “The Secret Files of Edison Rex” - with background details on characters, weapons, and locations. These are written by Rex and have some amusing comments and insights. This is also the first place where the Gladstone Institute is mentioned, a place that is prominent in the history/development of Edison Rex.

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ISSUE THREE HIGHLIGHTS: Valliant's former fortress is discovered, and my theory is back in play again as Rex admits he brought M’Alizz along solely to handle the automated defense system. It’s amusing and ironic that Rex berates the late Valiant for turning “his home into a museum dedicated to himself.” We later get a glimpse into the Edison Rex hideaway and find it to be very similar. Rex rescues Cerebella, the “computational engine of unimaginable potential” that Valiant had modified and held captive while using “her” to run the fortress systems. This issue ends with another intergalactic preview, as “Worldline” considers another recruit for what appears to be a program of planetary destruction. Cerebella is an interesting new character, as the backup secret files feature reveals. Also, the text as written by Rex reveals more of his character and alludes to his arrogance and attitude of entitlement: “I think that’s what I found so unsettling about her at the outset – her willingness to go to any extremes in the pursuit of her goals. It’s safe to say that I know something about self-sacrifice, but even I’m not eager to use my own body as a testing ground for unproven technologies. That’s what test subjects are for.” Rex is just a loveable charlatan. Not to be missed is the REXfiles commentary while describing Valliant's Vault. Rex turns the explanation into a piece of biased evidence to show the alleged dark side of Valliant's nature.

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ISSUE FOUR HIGHLIGHTS: An intruder with Valiant-like strength and abilities breaks into Rex headquarters. It’s Defiant (the obvious antithesis of Valiant) and a very Bizarro-like “genetic golem” that Rex had created to go up against Valiant in a previous failed attempt. Just as he did against Valiant in Issue #1, Rex uses his powers of persuasion (what a smooth talker!) to get out of trouble. After reading the description of Defiant in the backup text piece, I begin to get the feeling that Rex is deliberating inserting select commentary into the “secret files” that will show him in a favorable light after he makes the files public. Or, he’s just trying to convince himself that he’s actually as noble as he claims. A little self-doubt, perhaps? The REXfile on “The Hideout” provides further evidence of his vanity and identity confusion. The explanations of various items of destruction are worded in such a way as to defend or rationalize what he was doing. His description of the “death booth” as a failure that never worked is pure conjecture/cover-up. We do learn how Rex was able to command the loyalty of M’Alizz after viewing the Alien Armor. Some favorites are the Rexbot, the Rexmobile (very Bat-like) and the Rocket = This Rocket is “ From the time I tried to convince the public that I had been rocketed to Earth from a dying world as an infant, in a failed attempt to garner sympathy and support.” The one-page comic at the end of the book is a faithful homage to the type of advertising frequently found in older comic books (and as ridiculous as it is funny).

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ISSUE FIVE HIGHLIGHTS: Are the first and last two pages of the main story featuring a team of simian super-heroes and the coming attractions blurb on the last page a preview of things to come, or are Roberson and Culver having some fun at their own expense while mocking the whole super-hero universe in general? In the main story, Rex makes a public announcement dedicating the beginning of Edison Aid, a new building on the foundations of the former Gladstone Institute. Some of the origin story of Edison Rex is hinted at. It also seems to be an issue chock-full of secret organizations and the ensuing bombardment of acronyms that always accompany such things: H.O.R.N.E.T. and L.A.R.V.A. Again, Rex avoids physicality this time simply by providing a better opportunity for his foes.

At a very reasonable 99-cents-per-issue (shorter than print-based comics at an average of 15 pages) EDISON REX offers a fun and economical way to explore the world of digital comics.

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