Over two weeks with no reviews. Oops. Partly life intervening (new job means new schedule), but mostly the fact that my free time has been going toward finishing Death Note, catching up on the Atticus Kodiak novels and (shame!) playing Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii.
So, in an effort to catch up, two shorter (for me) reviews in one today, Jeff Smith’s “remake” of a classic Captain Marvel story, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil and the original 30 Days of Night book.
|Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil
By Jeff Smith with Steve Hamaker
DC Comics – hardcover, $29.99
SINCE THE FIRST ISSUE OF BONE, Jeff Smith has made it look easy, and the deeply pleasurable Monster Society is no exception. The book has the perfect mix of nostalgic and modern elements and I can see it genuinely appealing to all ages. Having never really read Captain Marvel, I’m sure there are several references for long-time fans that went right past me, but I didn’t feel left out at all, as I often have in similar projects.
The art is, of course, gorgeous. Smith’s Captain Marvel captures the classical aspect of the character, yet is unmistakably a Jeff Smith character. As in Bone, one of Smith’s strengths is his ability to place cartoony characters like the kids (who are adorable) or Dr. Sivana next to a more detailed character, creature or setting and make them look like they belong in the same world. He’s equally adept at exaggerated gestures and subtle “acting.” The storytelling is simple and clear without being plain. The only weakness I see in the art is that, while Smith is wonderful at capturing bright and colorful, as well as dark and moody settings, some in-between lighting looks awkward. This sort of thing is rare, though, as Smith generally leaves the art open for Steve Hamaker’s delightful colors to take care of light and shadow. Hamaker suggests classic comics with a bright pallet that approaches flat color in places, using modeled tones and special effects sparingly, but putting them to good use when needed. (Check out some of Hamaker’s great Youtube videos on coloring.)
Monster Society’s themes have more to offer than simply good versus evil, which helps with the modern feel. First and foremost is the theme of family. Billy Batson starts the book as an orphan and contends that he’s fine on his own. As he become connected to rest of the cast, he learns why family is important. What’s impressive is that this is presented in a way that’s touching without being in the least cloying. Some of the political satire is a little overbearing–I got tired of characters saying “…or the terrorists win,” which feels dated enough without being repeated several times–but some is quite effective, as when Sterling Morris has to run allegations against Sivana past the station lawyers before broadcasting them. “It’s impossible to say if [Sivana] is kidnapping the little girl or helping her escape,” they insist. Sivana’s war profiteering is an excellent choice of villainous motive, since it is both timely and the sort of thing one might expect to see in a 1940’s adventure story.
Apart from the broad strokes, Monster Society is also full of great touches like Captain Marvel stopping an alligator from eating a kid by sticking his head in its mouth, breaking its teeth. I found myself smiling at the characterization of pint-sized Mary (“I don’t need a babysitter, I’m Mary Marvel. See ya around, sucker. ”). And I was amused by the clever misdirection with the identity of the Attorney General, who radio broadcasts imply is John Ashcroft before his true identity is revealed (though how he can be Attorney General and also head of the Department of Heartland Security is beyond me). A sense of fun pervades the book, with details like chapter titles being in code.
The presentation is also top-notch. The book is oversized, in the same format as Marvel’s large hardcovers, with pages of sketches and notes in the back, as well as art from the original Monster Society story and excerpts from Smith’s production journal. The cover announces that the dust jacket unfolds into a giant poster. I’m not quite convinced, since the paper stock is stiff enough that it’s hard to get it to lie flat, but it’s a cool idea and the jacket is worth unfolding for the extra character art and cover gallery.
Overall, a great story in a beautiful package.
|30 Days of Night
By Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
IDW – softcover, $17.99
TTHIS ONE’S A BIT OLDER, but with the recent release of the film adaptation, it seemed like a good time to give it a read. Vampires attacking an Alaskan town during the period in which it receives no sunlight is an intriguing concept; unfortunately, the actual story by Steve Niles has little more to offer than what’s already there in the title.
For a comic that was largely responsible for revitalizing the horror genre in comics, 30 Days falls seriously short in providing scares. A lot of the flaws come down to the pacing, which feels off throughout. Virtually no attention is paid to foreshadowing, with the vampire threat appearing abruptly after very little buildup, and once it’s begun, there’s no sense of time whatsoever. Page after page is spent on vampires feeding on nameless characters, context-free, while scenes in which the main characters figure out what is going on and make choices about how to handle it are truncated into near-nonexistence.
For instance, in one scene a character is shown suffering from an attack. By the top of the next page he’s already become a vampire himself, and is dispatched within two more pages. In an earlier scene, he voices the possibility of overpowering the vampires, but makes no mention of a desire to try on his own, and is neither seen leaving the shelter nor returning to it; he’s simply already turning the next time we see him. No one has any reaction to this occurrence, emotional or otherwise, except Sheriff Eben, who gets the idea for his ridiculous solution to the vampire invasion from it. Many of what you’d think would be key scenes, such as the townspeople’s early attempts to fight back and Sheriff Eben’s decision to leave the shelter to find food, are relegated to brief after-the-fact captions. Basically, there’s just enough plot to fit holes into, but no more.
With no space whatsoever reserved for foreshadowing or characterization––an early scene in which Sheriff Eben’s wife forces him to watch the sun set with her is not only the only moment of characterization afforded them, but it’s all that’s given to anyone in the entire book––there is no sense of connection with anyone in danger, no urgency, and certainly no suspense. A subplot involving a mother and son in New Orleans adds nothing and is completely lacking in context.
Any sense of tone or style in 30 Days comes exclusively from Ben Templesmith’s art, and even that is somewhat lacking. Templesmith’s re-imagining of the vampires’ look is the most effective element of the book and his use of color, while in some places a bit too murky, really sells both the mood and the locale. The sketchier aspects work well, but the more rendered faces don’t fit and make the whole thing seem stiffer. The storytelling is unclear in some places, especially where series of small close-up panels are used. From the looks of the previews in the back, Templesmith’s art grew a good deal in the sequels, and it’s stepped up immensely in his work with Warren Ellis on Fell. I’d recommend reading that instead.