Archive for the ‘My Week in Comics’ Category

The Bagdad’s Zombie Hordes and the Untimely Death of Hepcats – My Week in Comics December 5–11

December 19, 2010

This week: How a beered-up crowd reacts to The Walking Dead, which anthropomorphic comic of the ’90s needs to make a comeback, and What I Read, complete with sentimental essay on the Vision For Space Exploration program.


SO MANY BEARDS AND TRENCH COATS: THE WALKING DEAD FINALE AT THE BAGDAD

Spoiler alert: With the exception of the last sentence, the first five paragraphs below are spoiler-free, a report on the experience of watching The Walking Dead’s season finale in a crowded theater. After that, proceed with caution if you don’t want to know what happens.


IS THIS A PORTLAND THING? I don’t know if they do this in other cities, but Portland is full of cheap, second-run movie theaters that serve food and beer, the revenue from which allows them to show a variety of things other than movies on their screens for free: Trail Blazers games, college football, the Oscars, that sort of thing, as well as TV series that they think will bring in thirsty customers every week, which has previously included Battlestar Galactica.

This year, McMenamins’ Bagdad Theater showed every episode of AMC’s Walking Dead adaptation, and I meant each week to catch an episode and see what the experience of watching a hit TV show with a repeat audience was like, but it never quite worked out. The combination of a 10PM show and the late-night bus schedule would have meant getting home after midnight, which never seemed like a great idea on a Sunday night. Apparently a lot of people disagreed with me, because when I finally made it for the season finale, the hosts asked who had made it every week and a good-sized cheer went up. An even bigger cheer accompanied the announcement that all 13 episodes of the next season would also screen at the theater.

As might be expected of a late-night audience at a pub theater, there were also lots of cheers every time anyone on screen took a drink, which happens a lot in the finale. An ad for the Serenity Lane alcohol and drug treatment center also got a big ovation, though commercials in general received jeers. It’s definitely a very different experience from watching a show at home. The show generally benefited from the big-screen treatment and looked surprisingly clear, though it wasn’t framed quite right, a little of the top and bottom of the image trimmed off. TV shows seem to have become more cinematic in style, perhaps because larger TV setups are more common, but there is still a greater reliance on closeups, which doesn’t play quite as well on a cinema screen.

The theater was packed, with many patrons of the beard and trench coat variety. Since it was the first time I’d gone, I don’t know if the line was comparable to previous shows or if it was filled out with other people like me figuring this is their last chance. One guy ahead of me said that he’d come later on previous weeks and seen less of a line. In any case, by the time the doors opened at 9PM, the line stretched the length of the block and had begun to wrap around the opposite side. I had no trouble finding a seat, having come alone, but by 10 they were pretty scarce.

The biggest cheer of the evening naturally came when the show started, but it quieted down pretty quickly, with the crowd immediately sucked in. Seeing how The Walking Dead plays to an audience, it’s not surprising how successful it’s been. It commanded attention, though the audience, there for a good time, reacted pretty strongly to everything that went on. I’m not sure if it was the most comedic episode to date, or if a laughing audience just made it seem that way. Certainly the writers and actors made the most of how unaccustomed the characters are to the relative luxury of the CDC bunker they find themselves in.

The bulk of the episode was underwhelming, in spite of the nice moments adjusting to the bunker allowed. While the series started very strongly with an atmospheric first two episodes that extracted horror from an achingly slow pace and strong central mission of “find the family,” the remainder of the series has depended on poorly-defined characters that don’t really make sense together and deeply inorganic plotting, with much of what’s happened a transparent setup either for lengthy exposition or artificial peril.

The finale is the most guilty of the season of that latter complaint, comprised of a series of contrivances to further either explanation or unearned tension. While the countdown to the bunker losing power that drives the second half of the episode is a nice dramatic device, it makes no real sense. The notion of a unalterable time at which power will run out contradicts an earlier scene in which Dr. Jenner, the last CDC holdout in the bunker, requests that everyone conserve energy. Similarly, Jenner justifies locking Rick and the rest of the cast in the computer room with him by saying that they’re locked into the building anyway, so it doesn’t matter, meaning of course that there is also no reason for him to do so, except to allow for a few minutes of moral argument that exceeds the episode writer’s grasp, and to shorten the window of escape to a few minutes. That escape is the best thing the episode has going for it, with a cute reversal of the usual zombie visual—instead of the dead banging on windows to get in, the living are banging on windows to get out—but is ultimately undercut by another plot convenience, in which a character forgets she has a hand grenade capable of breaking the windows until it is most dramatic for her to remember.

The season did, however, end on a good note, with the crew piling into cars and driving back into the infested wilds, where they now understand they will spend the rest of their probably short lives. It’s the best mission statement the show has provided so far, and bodes well for a second season less tied down by temporary goals and more invested in its characters resigning themselves to their new lives. I can’t say how long that second season will hold my interest, but the shakeup in the writing staff, widely reported online and addressed by the event hosts at the beginning of the evening, is promising so long as showrunner Frank Darabont takes a firmer hand in enforcing the excellent tone and drive he injected the series premiere with (though my interest in the comics series did eventually flag, so we’ll see). My experience at the Bagdad, with its blissed-out crowd that almost hid the leaden drama of the finale, convinced me that I should try to catch at least a few episodes there, though the half-hour wait for the bus in the below-freezing Oregon December has me equally confident that I won’t be doing it too often.

BRING BACK HEPCATS!

  • Hepcats Reprint Library Volume 1: The Collegiate Hepcats
  • Hepcats Reprint Library Volume 2: Snowblind Part One by Martin Wagner

I’M BOTH new to Hepcats and not. Until recently I hadn’t thought about the series in years and hadn’t read any but the first issue of the comic-book series, but my first exposure was in high school, when I discovered The Collegiate Hepcats at the height of my love for comic strips. At the time, I aspired to be a comic-strip artist when I grew up, and even though I wasn’t familiar with Martin Wagner, the promise of seeing the kind of work a comics artist had done in college was something I couldn’t pass up. My memory is of reading it voraciously and then not really thinking about it again, though it did deepen my desire to draw my comics, and on a recent reread I was surprised by how much I remembered, so the characters must have dug deeper into my brain than I realized at the time.

The strip is a surprisingly comfortable mix of funny-animal aesthetics and Doonesbury/Bloom County-style humor. True, Bloom County is a funny-animal strip, but it features both animal characters and human characters, whereas Hepcats stars characters meant to be human, all of whom have animal heads. Actually, Bloom Country and Hepcats share a genesis at the University of Texas at Austen’s Daily Texan, where Shannon Wheeler and Chris Ware also had work published. (I was familiar with Wheeler and Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed at the time, though I don’t think I’d yet heard of Ware.) While, by Wagner’s own admission, blatantly derivative of Doonesbury and Bloom County in style, Hepcats has its own cast of relatable characters and is visually accomplished for the age of its author, with a mix of topical UT humor and relationship soap opera, as well as a somewhat inexplicable second cast in rural Texas who never interacted with the main college cast. Though some amusing stories came out of those characters, they didn’t make the transition to the comic-book version. Wagner at times over-relies on metatextual humor to gloss over plot problems, but the strip is generally quite funny and its characters grow on the reader.

(When I eventually went to college, at the University of Southern California, I studied film, but still nursed a fantasy of drawing comic strips and so put together five weeks worth of comics to submit to The Daily Trojan. The editor I spoke with did me what in retrospect turns out to have been an enormous favor: without looking at the material, she told me that the Trojan didn’t run comic strips. She was wrong; when I put out the word online asking whether college comics were a thing of the past, I was informed that the Trojan had run daily comics only a few semesters previous. As it turns out, the staff is elected every semester and therefore has no institutional memory. Before I left, she looked down at the packet in my hand and saw the first strip. “It looks really good,” she said. “Sorry.” Over the following years, my presence in the Trojan was limited to an interview about a charitable program I administered in my dorm building and a letter to the editor during the 2004 election, and given everything that’s happened to newspapers since, I thank that editor.)

Anyway, Hepcats and I didn’t really cross paths for the next dozen years. I was aware of the comic-book continuation, which ran 12 issues and got a good deal of press, including mentions in Wizard magazine in the mid-’90s (which would have been my actual first awareness of it), rare for a self-published series, and knew that there was a collection of the more serious later material, but it wasn’t until Thanksgiving this year, when a comics-loving friend was home from CalArts for the break and wanted to visit some comics stores, that I actually noticed that collection, the Snowblind Part One hardcover.

Snowblind is excellent. Previously confined to the four-panel format, Wagner clearly feels liberated by the room provided by full-page comics. His storytelling isn’t always clear when there’s a lot of movement, though it is improved from the first issue, reprinted in The Collegiate Hepcats, but his detailed crosshatching benefits from having more space, and he makes great use of contrast between heavily detailed pages and others in which the book’s narrator Erica appears against vast white backgrounds. The story is, animal heads aside, straight drama about regular people with no genre elements and not starring misanthropic man-children, making it still a rare specimen in non-autobiographical American comics.

Wagner also proves deft at adapting his previously comedic characters into a dramatic setting while maintaining their personalities. There’s no noticeable change in Joey, Gunther, and Arnie, who are still somewhat goofy, and they react as expected to the considerably less silly events around them, but also display an ability to take things more seriously only hinted at in their comic-strip iterations. Erica is the most changed, but it feels a natural reaction to what goes on in the book, as her past, never addressed in the strip even as we met the others’ families, catches up with her. Wagner writes the four main characters believably, and shows tremendous sensitivity as he slowly unfolds what is happening to Erica without ever quite getting into great detail. That is promised for the next volume.

Except the next volume never happened. This is what I didn’t realize as I stayed only vaguely aware of the continuation of Hepcats: while I occasionally saw mention of Snowblind Part One, I never saw similar evidence of Snowblind Part Two. The first book covers the series only up through issue #10, so there are two more out there for me to find, but the story doesn’t actually conclude—despite relaunching the series at Antarctic Press, Wagner was discouraged by sales and after the initial 12 issues were reprinted never completed the 13th. Wagner has spent much of his time since working in film and hosting the Austen program The Atheist Experience, though he has maintained that Snowblind will be completed as a webcomic, most recently stating in November that there may be “some news to relate soon.” While no one can begrudge him prioritizing paying work in the current economy, I hope that really does come to pass, because I want to see the completion of this story.

True, I haven’t waited for it the way many of Wagner’s fans have, but Hepcats got me while I was young, and my reread of The Collegiate Hepcats before getting into Snowblind proved to me how much it had gotten under my skin. These characters mean something to me, which is the most one can ask from the creator of serial fiction, and I hope Wagner eventually finds the time and financial freedom to bring closure to the story he’s put into his fans’ heads. Furthermore, the serialized comics world needs more of the kind of unadorned human drama (with animal heads) that made Hepcats unique then and now. So, as patiently as I can say it: more Hepcats!

READ THIS WEEK 12/5–12/11:

  • 10 by Keith Giffen & Andy Kuhn
  • Absolute All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant
    Probably the best superhero story of the decade. I didn’t buy the standard-sized collections of this material, because an Absolute edition was a foregone conclusion, and now that it’s here I’m so glad I waited. Morrison and Quitely did a superb job of creating single-issue tales that built into a single story, and reading them close together makes them all the richer. The main attraction, though, is of course the size, and Quitely displays a truly rare quality in his work, somehow managing to create an overall aesthetic of spareness while still packing frames with subtle detail. The larger size made so many things clearer—bits of text here, small actions there—while the simple fact that I was reading the material for the third or fourth time made Morrison’s equally intricate work more apparent (for instance, the method of Luthor’s escape from prison in issue #11 is set up in issue #5). Despite playing at that scale, not many superhero comics actually earn the term “majestic,” but All-Star Superman easily makes it over the bar, and the Absolute edition leaves it miles below.
  • Adventure Comics #520 by Paul Levitz, Kevin Sharpe, Mario Alquiza, Jeff Lemire, Mahmoud Asrar & John Dell
  • The Adventures of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaohs by Hergé
    Wow, these are breathless little stories. The story logic is strained, there’s no variation in pacing, and character motivations are non-existent, but I understand that is balanced out by the breathing room provided to the wonderful artwork. Unfortunately, the recent edition that I read this story in is reprinted very small, so I didn’t get the effect.
  • Batman Beyond #5 by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci
  • Doom Patrol #17 by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, Ron Randall & John Livesay
  • Gantz vol. 14 by Hiroya Oku
  • The Question vol. 6: Peacemaker by Dennis O’Neil, Deny Cowan & Malcolm Jones III
    A really fascinating end to O’Neil and Cowan’s run. I’ve heard this talked about in terms of its reinvention of the Question character, its social relevance, allusions to Eastern philosophy, and recommended reading lists in the letters columns (sadly not reprinted in these volumes), but I don’t recall hearing much about how it documents the deterioration and collapse of a city in more or less real time. This is what they call “gritty urban drama,” and barely fits in the superhero genre, with the title character having two identities, sure, but the gradation between the two is so slight by the end as to be nearly invisible. The Question is also pretty ineffectual by this point, not even a Band-Aid on a city that is fundamentally broken—with a dozen cops and no doctors left, it’s a postapocalyptic scenario without an apocalypse—while his love interest who has been elected mayor takes over as protagonist. I’m hard-pressed to think of another series that ends with the costumed main character admitting defeat and escaping the city while his girlfriend stays to fight the fight. Dated and over-the-top in places, sure, but gripping and unlike any other superhero comic I’ve ever read.
  • Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale by Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon & Chris Samnee
  • Superboy #1–#2 by Jeff Lemire & Pier Gallo
    Sweet Tooth #16 by Jeff Lemire

    Still enjoying Sweet Tooth every month. Superboy has promise, but Lemire still seems to be finding his feet with hero books, falling back on convention, so the writing isn’t as strong. Poison Ivy has no real motivation for her presence in #2, and when Superboy referrs to Smallville as “her,” it sticks out because it feels like a signpost for a level of emotional connection to the place that has yet to be earned by anything he’s done or how the town has been depicted so far in these two issues—it’s certainly not James Robinson’s Opal City. Superboy’s sidekick combining Lex Luthor with Jimmy Olson is promising, though, and his parasite frogs were cool, and a nice payoff of the “training frogs” bit from #1.
  • Temporary #1–#3 by Damon Hurd & Rick Smith
    Discovered these in a quarter bin. Issues #2 and #3 are okay, hurt by a clichéd portrayal of Multiple Personality Disorder, but issue #1 is a brilliant piece of storytelling, sending the titular temp worker into a mental hospital for a day’s worth of filing, where a series of miscommunications land her in a fake office in which patients are being experimented on. Sent to “work” each day, the patients play out a sadistic version of office work, which in its bizarre demands and capricious inequities resembles nothing so much as a regular workplace. The system is so insane that it cannot recognize a sane person, yet so familiar that the sane cannot recognize it as insane. The artwork looks similar to a lot of other thick-lined, cartoony books, but it’s confident enough work and doesn’t betray the unbalanced nature of any of the characters, while making their instability believable once the story makes it clear. Both writing and art keep the main character a cypher, appropriate to her role as observer, though we learn just enough about her on the last page that the subsequent opening up of her personality in later issues feels natural. It’s the freaky mirror of the real world the first issue reveals that is the real accomplishment, though.
  • Thor: The Mighty Avenger vol. 1 by Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee & Matthew Wilson
    The many people singing this series’ praises are not wrong. Having never read a Thor comic before, this was completely accessible and thoroughly entertaining. That the story should be simple yet engaging is no surprise, as I’m a fan of Langridge’s Muppet Show Comic, and Chris Samnee somehow makes innocence and power sit side-by-side like they were natural complements, working in perfect tandem with colorist Wilson to create images that look more detailed than they actually are, thanks to the skillful application of a line here, a color hold there. Some panels feature characters that are little more than stick figures, but posed just so, so that their gestures are clear, and you even fool yourself into thinking that you know what their facial expressions are. A perfect little comic that makes all-ages superheroing look easy. I understand there will be one more trade, one fewer than originally planned; hopefully they can wrap things up okay in time.

     The two old Journey Into Mystery reprints are the first I’ve ever read of the original Thor comics stories, and they are very, very different, making me curious how a man given the power of Thor by picking up a walking stick has evolved into the modern version, a character who is Thor, cast out of Asgard. Also, he has a “T” on his belt, which is hilarious. It reminds me that the original Galactus had a big “G” on his chest. Did most Marvel characters used to have their initials on their clothes? Is Captain America the only one that never gave it up (and why him? No one really thinks of America when they see the letter “A”—hell, “A” is the only one we leave off the acronym when we say U.S.)?

     Only problem I had was the pricing at $15, $3 more than the combined price of the issues. I get why a marginally profitable comic to begin with isn’t bargain priced, but at least match the price of the issues, yeah?

  • Tiny Titans/Little Archie and His Pals #3 by Art Baltazar and Franco
    Archie runs amuck in the Batcave! And Batman has a phone that allows him to call up the Joker! He wants to get rid of Archie, who is clearly not Robin, despite the “R” on his shirt. Batman explains, “I’m a detective, y’know. I can tell.” Plus, other stuff happens. I love the regular Tiny Titans, but adding the Little Archie cast has shaken things up to an extra degree, making this miniseries even more fun.
  • Twin Spica vol. 4 by Kou Yaginuma
    President George W. Bush and I agree on precious little, but I was excited by his Vision for Space Exploration program, announced in 2004, which proposed establishing the Constellation shuttle and a greater human presence on the moon, as a stepping stone to wider exploration of the solar system. It was by far the most forward-looking program of his presidency, though even at the time it was criticized for taking money from other programs, and President Obama’s next proposed budget, while actually increasing NASA’s budget over the next five years, calls for Constellation to be cut and more space technology to be outsourced to private industry.

     In that context, Twin Spica is not only a delightful read, but a timely one, too. Published in 2003, shortly before President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration program, it’s about the pull of space despite the presence of more immediate, earthly concerns. The fourth volume includes the first instance we’ve seen of protest against the resurgent Japanese space program, as picketers declare it both dangerous and a waste of taxpayer money. That gives main character Asumi pause, as she’s never before considered the expense of the program and how else the money might be spent, and the moment hangs over the rest of the volume. But it is ultimately overcome by the intense need that humanity feels for space, and for learning.

     At a glance, the space program doesn’t seem like the best use of money in bad economic times, but the expansion of human knowledge is ennobling, and as we learn more about the universe, we become a better people. Our lives have been changed by countless discoveries from the space program, even if we ourselves will never visit space, and the simple fact of a photo of the Earth from space changed the way we saw ourselves and became an instant symbol for the peace movement. The withdrawal from space has been devastating to America’s self esteem, to the point that it’s hard to imagine any great goal being tackled with the courage and ambition that the race for the moon inspired, and the proposed cutting of the Constellation program feels like just one more admission that this country no longer reaches for greatness, though I take some comfort in NASA’s announcement that it will plan further out in response, and that those plans involve manned missions to Mars.

     Twin Spica is obviously not about the plight of the United States in 2010, but Japan is no stranger to issues of national self esteem, and the balance of dealing with the problems right in front of us and reaching for the stars is universal. Here, it is charmingly embodied by Asumi, one of the students at a high school focusing on space science, who is incredibly small for her age, but who has nurtured dreams of space travel her whole life. The art is beautiful, with round, expressive characters, and a clean depiction of technology, realistic-looking but without a distracting fetishism for detail. The stories are warm and thoughtful, with a leisurely pace and the easy mix of science and magical realism that manga seems to excel at. It is a pleasure to read and, as the previous paragraphs have demonstrated, inspires further thought on its themes well after it’s been put down. I think I said this before, but this series reminds me why I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid.

Photo of Bagdad Theater © McMenamins, I guess. It was on their website. Images of Hepcats © Martin Wagner. Images of Temporary © Damon Hurd and Rick Smith

Emitown and the life weighed down – my 2 weeks in comics 11/21–12/4

December 15, 2010

This week: Emitown comes to print, but I have a PDF. Which is probably good, because damn, I have way too many comics and they have taken over my apartment. Also, I read two weeks’ of them. Maybe I should get rid of them afterward. Hmm.


EMITOWN COMES TO YOUR TOWN

I DON’T KNOW what to make of Emi Lenox. In person, she’s quick-witted, funny and a bit loud, the kind of person who makes me a little nervous for fear of making a fool of myself, which I have reliably done about half the times we’ve chatted. Her autobiographical comics are very different: often quiet and contemplative, revealing exactly the insecurities and lapses of self-confidence that I am familiar with. The contrast is a bit daunting, but eye-opening, a study in the different faces people show the world and a glimpse into the worlds people contain within them. And, as the creator of fanciful alter egos and a complex system of symbols and icons, Lenox has genuinely built a world for herself, or at least a town. Of course, the thing that Lenox’s comics have in common with her public face is that they are also very funny.

I first met Lenox while visiting the Top Shelf booth at the 2009 Emerald City Comicon. She was behind the booth, working my old job as a Top Shelf intern. Top Shelf publisher Brett Warnock had by then told her she should post her diary comics online, but she hadn’t yet started making minicomics of them or promoting them in earnest. We got to talking and she directed me to her comics online.

At first Lenox’s work reminded me of Jim Mahfood, though she wasn’t familiar with him, but over time it has become more and more her own thing. Rather than breaking up the comic by story, in true diary fashion she breaks it up by day, with each day getting a page, and she never skips a day, even if it can take a long time to get a day drawn. Which is not to say story threads don’t reveal themselves over time, but they do the way they do in life: a detail here, another there, until it adds up to something, but without obvious beginnings, middles, and ends. Lenox’s emphasis is less on revealing herself to the world, and more on creating a forum to work on her comics skills, the funny things that occur to and around her as the raw material from which she shapes excitingly designed pages and carefully encoded longing.

I bring all of this up, of course, because the first book collection of Emitown, Lenox’s daily comics journal, is being published December 22nd by Image Comics. Lenox sent me a PDF of the book, which spans from the end of April 2009 to the end of April 2010. It’s an attractive package, hand-lettered and designed in the same simple style as the comics themselves, with the same single, blue spot color. Over the course of the book, Lenox’s art grows frighteningly fast, and it changes considerably as she adopts a brush pen as her primary tool partway through. If Lenox’s formidable drawing and page design skills aren’t enough, she blew me away when we first discussed her work by telling me that she doesn’t spend a lot of time sketching out the layout or penciling, going straight to ink before scanning and toning.

Emitown is also a great read, chronicling what I suspect will turn out to have been a key year in Lenox’s life, as she makes friends in the comics world and becomes more confident about her work. It’s an entertaining read for the humor, the characters, and the great sensibility that frames it all, but it should also appeal to anyone interested in breaking into comics, or what the comics scene is like, or fans of breakfast burritos. You can read the comic on Lenox’s website, and I encourage everyone to do so, but I think the book will be worth picking up to be able to see the growth of a young artist finding herself as you turn the pages.

THE FEAR OF BEING CRUSHED TO DEATH BY COMICS

A small portion of the problem

TRIED THIS WEEKEND to clean my apartment, but precious little scrubbing of surfaces got done, as the entire project was highjacked by hours of soul-deadening work converting comics from stacks strewn on every surface into packs to go to work, friends, and the high school I used to teach at, boxes, or, failing that, at least slightly more orderly stacks.

The problem, of course, is that I have too many comics, and outside of things I get tired of, acquire doubles of, or never intended to keep, I’m not very good at getting rid of them. I’m not the tidiest person in the world to begin with, but I’ve hit the point where comics are in stacks not because I can’t be bothered to put them away, but because I am out of shelf space for them. I’m doing what I can: reading more from the library, making an effort to read through the huge backlog instead of buying as many, and regularly putting together bags to go to work or school. But even so, the problem is worse week by week as I bring home the things on my pull list, Dark Horse comps (all the books I work on, plus all the stapled comics DH publishes), some of the DC comics that circulate through the office, and books from other publishers where I have friends.

I don’t generally buy a lot of things, having conquered my DVD habit a few years back, and thanks to my love of the library, regular books aren’t the problem they once were, but since I am also a collector of comics, I’m more inclined to hold onto them, even if I’m not likely to reread them frequently. The library is helping, and I tend to return a lot of the things I find at work when I’m done with them (like The Red Hood below), though that’s kind of a wash, since those are mainly things I wouldn’t have brought home in the first place if they weren’t free. So it’s still a habit that’s dying harder than the book one. It’s adding up at a staggering pace, and this weekend showed that the bulk of comics taking up space in the apartment is actually making my life more complicated.

The comics market still depends on collectors. Book collectors are a small niche within book readers, but I’d wager that the majority of non-casual comics readers are also comics collectors. What I wonder is at what point collecting turns into hoarding? Am I there yet? Are some of the people I work with? I shudder to think of how much work moving all of these comics will be, and that is probably part of what’s kept me in this apartment for five years, even though I could live more cheaply closer to work.

I enjoy Robot 6’s recurring Shelf Porn feature, and I admire the people who contribute, because even if they haven’t beaten the accumulation habit, they have managed to take a certain control of it, at least in terms of theme and organization. By contrast, the comics in my apartment are a model of the axiom that the things you own come to own you. I would never submit the shelves pictured above to Shelf Porn, as they are an example of how much I do not have control over the comics that I own, to the point that I spent hours this weekend serving these shelves and the boxes on them, without much to show for it.

To be fair, those shelves are the worst I’ve got, with most of the books on them in no real order. The bookcases and other storage schemes throughout the apartment are organized alphabetically or by format. These are the problem shelves that I’m slowly chipping away at. The top shelf and one of the boxes are filled with books I worked on, while the file box on top is tax papers and other non-comics-related stuff, but the rest are all just disorganized books, many yet to be read. There’s also a precarious stack on the nightstand, a to-read box snuck in by my recliner, and several boxes across town in a pantry in my parents’ house (as Mort Milfington would say, “Shameful! Ignominious!”).

No matter how much you love something, when it’s attached to physical products, having too much of it is oppressive. Possessions really do weigh you down, and I’ve begun fantasizing about simply getting rid of all the comics, without regard to whether they are rare or signed or beloved or whatever. But what happens when I want to refer to an issue of Swamp Thing or reread a favorite Black Jack? The next day after the cleaning fiasco, I brought a big stack of comics with me to work and left them in the breakroom. Later, I spotted a fresh stack of DC comps nearby and dug out about six comics, then realized what I was doing. I didn’t bring them home, leaving them in my office instead while I decide if I really want to try to find a place for some of them and hoping that maybe I’ll read some of them there on my lunch break or something, then put them back. I need help.

READ THIS WEEK 11/14–11/20:

  • Casanova: Luxuria #4 by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Bá
  • Doom Patrol #16 by Keith Giffen, Brian Keene & Al Milgrom
    Hooray for Keith Giffen on art! The man knows how to keep things dynamic and exciting, and no one draws Ambush Bug as well as his creator. I’m liking the new post-Chief status quo as well, with Cliff buckling under his new leadership pressures.
  • Liberty Annual 2010 by various
    It seems almost unfair to pass judgment on something like this, with money going to charity and the artists involved donating their time and talent. Suffice to say some of the stories hit, some miss, but it’s a good cause, so get it anyway.
  • JLA: The Deluxe Edition vol. 4 by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, Frank Quitely, Ed McGuinness, et al.
    I’ve been mostly really happy with this presentation of one of my favorite superhero comics of the ’90s. They’re nicely enough designed if not flashy, have corrected some strange edits from the paperbacks, the larger size definitely flatters the art of Quitely, McGuinness, and even Porter, and they are comprehensive with one notable exclusion. I was disappointed that DC One Million wasn’t included in the previous volume, considering that it was written by Morrison and was essentially an extra JLA arc with a larger-than-usual supporting cast, and the inclusion of the JLA tie-in issue made its absence even more glaring. However, this volume is just about perfect, including Morrison and Porter’s finale, “World War Three,” which establishes Earth as the cradle of the Fifth World (and therefore anticipates elements of Morrison’s Batman and Final Crisis), Earth 2, which is a clever story elevated by Quitely’s art, and Morrison’s more recent three issues of JLA Classified, a sort of prologue to Seven Soldiers. I remembered all three fondly, and each almost lived up to my recollection.
  • Papercutter #5 by Kazimir Strzepek, Liz Prince & Bwana Spoons
  • Red Hood: The Lost Days #3–#5 by Judd Winick & Jeremy Haun
    Weird. I don’t know what I was expecting from this series, but “Jason Todd, scourge of international arms dealers” wasn’t it.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #4 by Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver
    Somewhere along the way this got boring.
  • Spider-Man Family #3 by Paul Tobin, Pierre Alary, Jean Paul Fernandez, Fred Van Lente, Leonard Kirk, Terry Pallot & Yamanaka Akira
    Another breakroom find. What a bargain, $5 for two main stories, a complete reprinting of What If? #1, and my first exposure to the very weird, very adorable Spider-Man J (manga Spider-Man), who actually calls himself Spider-Man J and whose costume features the spider symbol, but with a “J” on it, implying that he exists in a continuity that also has the regular Spider-Man, of which he is a counterpart. But that’s not the case—he is Peter Parker, he has an Aunt May (who is young and cute, natch). I’m impressed how freely Yamanaka Akira was able to adapt Spider-Man J, which bears no resemblance to the regular Spider-Man in terms of supporting cast, tone, or enemies. As for the main story, I loved Pierre Alary’s simplified Fantastic Four designs and enjoyed Paul Tobin’s slight but entertaining take on their conflict with Spider-Man.
  • Strange Science Fantasy #4 by Scott Morse
    Scott Morse, never change.
  • Vertigo Resurrected: Shoot by Warren Ellis, Phil Jiminez, Andy Lanning and various
    I’d read most of the material here, but there were a few surprises, and overall this is a good selection of Vertigo shorts. The main attraction impresses me a lot less than when I first tracked it down years ago, more a tract with a very strange conclusion than a story. Nice art, worth seeing for the curiosity factor, but among the weaker contents.

READ THIS WEEK 11/21–12/4:

  • Action Comics #895 by Paul Cornell, Pete Woods, Nick Spencer & R.B. Silva
    Action Comics Annual #13 by Paul Cornell, Marco Rudy & Ed Benes
    Batman and Robin #17 by Paul Cornell, Scott McDaniel & Rob Hunter

    Triple dose of Paul Cornell. The regular Action Comics series is chugging along, with a revelation to move things forward just as the “tour of DCU villainy” element was starting to get tired, so well-timed there. The annual’s lead story was a lot of fun, with some insight into how Luthor got started in Metropolis, a fun take on his first meeting with Darkseid, and a page layout design cribbed from The Hunger Dogs, which all added up to a nice, breezy story. The backup somehow had the opposite effect, a bit of a pain to get through. The story is carried entirely by captions rather than action, and Ed Benes completely fails to create any visual interest between Ra’s Al Ghul and Luthor, depicting the two looking past each other with thousand-yard stares.

     The post-Morrison regular creative team on Batman and Robin doesn’t interest me, but I stuck around for this fill-in arc because I’ve been enjoying Action Comics and because I’m a longtime Scott McDaniel fan. The story is interesting so far, but feels like some details have been left out, a few skips stepped in explaining the mystery. McDaniel’s art looks a little different than I’m used to, a bit less cartoony, but it still has a strong acrobatic element, appropriate as Dick Grayson, whose adventures as Nightwing McDaniel drew for many years, is now Batman.

  • Batwoman #0 by J.H. Willimans III, W. Haden Blackman & Amy Reeder
    Pretty much a perfect zero issue, using Batman’s investigation to confirm that Kate Kane is Batwoman as an elegant method of both implying forward momentum for fans of Batwoman’s Detective Comics run and reintroducing all of the key details about her for new readers. Williams illustrates the top half of most pages, the majority of which are spreads, while Amy Reeder brings a softer, more European look to the bottom half following Kate in her civilian identity. This being Batwoman, the top half/bottom half thing isn’t strict, with several spreads divided diagonally by jagged, batwing lines, and the halves flipping at one point. Reeder’s art is quite different from Williams’s (though Williams himself used several different styles in the Detective run, echoed here whenever Batman notes how many styles Batwoman is combining in her fights), but very well integrated, even including a page where the top and bottom halves interact flawlessly. Enough time had passed since the Rucka/Williams run that I’d more or less forgotten about Batwoman, but this #0 has me looking forward to the new series.
  • Detective Comics #871 by Scott Snyder, Jock & Francesco Francavilla
    Pretty solid start.
  • Fantastic Four #585 by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting & Paul Mounts
    Hickman’s run impressed me so much early on, but so much of it feels mechanical now, predetermined, like the four one-off issues introducing the four cultures that would clash, all coincidentally emerging at once and all with neon signs announcing that they would be important later. This approach finds its apotheosis in “Three,” as the covers of the entire arc have featured a countdown to the death of one of the Four. Talk about overdetermined. On the plus side, Steve Epting’s realism has proven a great fit for the title.
  • King City #12 by Brandon Graham
    I felt a bit let down by this finale at first, but thinking afterward I realized that it couldn’t have ended with a bang; that would have flown in the face of the series’ low-key energy and refusal to play by anyone else’s rules. As it is, King City was the perfect forum for Graham’s brand of lethargic sexiness, and the sweet, character-driven conclusion was just right.
  • Legion of Superheroes #7 by Paul Levitz, Francis Portela, Yildiray Cinar & Wayne Faucher
  • Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four #12 by Jeff Parker, Juan Santacruz & Raul Fernandez (MDCU)
    My first try with Marvel’s browser-based reader. It’s really slow. The comic itself features a story called, “Doom, Where’s My Car?” and it’s exactly what you want it to be.
  • RASL #9 by Jeff Smith
    I don’t remember where we were. Time for a reread.
  • Scarlet #3 by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev
    This is still really working for me. This issue begins phase two of Scarlet’s plan and has me drawn in even more. It’s also the first indication that she may really be going off the deep end. There’s no way she could know all those cops are dirty.
  • Strange Tales by various
    So thrilled the hardcover includes Peter Bagge’s Megalomaniacal Spider-Man. I haven’t read that in forever, and it completely holds up. Interestingly enough, the plot involves Peter Parker going public about his relationship to Spider-Man, but not that he is Spider-Man, and starting a business venture called Spider-Man Inc. Beat Morrison to it by almost ten years.
  • Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe Edition by Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, Dick Giordano & Terry Austin
    I really enjoyed this. They got Ali’s persona down cold, and Adams draws him perfectly. The story’s silly, but fun, and I’m enough of a softy to appreciate the Earth being saved by Fair Play. I was a bit let down by the presentation, which leaves the remembrances to just Adams and former DC President Jeanette Kahn, when voices from outside of DC may have better contextualized the comic and the period, although the key to the people on the cover was a nice touch. I also don’t recall the solicitation saying that it would be recolored. Oh well, I picked the deluxe rather than facsimile edition partially in the hopes that the dual release might make the original easier to find affordably.
  • Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (library)
    Not a lot of graphic novels feel like novels. This one does. The art is beautifully gestural, the characters are complicated, and the emotions feel real, though one of the deaths seemed a little cheap. Overall, Simmonds has created a great piece of fiction that doesn’t need extraneous genre elements or nerdy child-men. The new movie adaptation looks pretty good, too.

Images of Emitown © Emi Lenox. Images of JLA © DC Comics, Inc. Images of King City © Brandon Graham

Doonesbury on the air and Miracleman under the radar – My 2 weeks in comics 11/7–11/20

December 6, 2010

This week: Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury on the radio, Miracleman as superhero fiction and as historical document, and two weeks of lots of reading.


GARRY TRUDEAU INTERVIEWED BY ON THE MEDIA

I RECENTLY brought up the 40th anniversary of Doonesbury while discussing longterm accumulation in serialized fiction such as Jaime Hernandez’s “Locas” characters, but of course I am far from the only person to have noticed the milestone. There are two new books celebrating the anniversary (which jointly top my Christmas list—hi, Mom!); slate.com, which hosts the strip online, has devoted a section to Doonesbury at 40; and interviews with Doonesbury’s author, Garry Trudeau, who normally avoids such things, have been popping up everywhere.

Most recently, I came across the first audio interview with Trudeau I’ve ever heard (though, to be fair, I’ve never looked for one before), which was a segment on the November 12th edition of On the Media. It’s less than 20 minutes long, but gets into a variety of interesting areas, from Trudeau’s humbling at the hands of an art teacher in college to what he was up to during his mid-’80s sabbatical, the origins of several of his presidential icons and why President Obama doesn’t have one, Hunter Thompson parody Uncle Duke’s motion-capture-animated run for president in 2000 (remember that?), the unexpected direction of character B.D.’s recovery from his physical and mental wounds sustained in Iraq, and why the younger characters are becoming the focus of the strip. I don’t know that there’s a lot that’s new to hardcore fans—I read and love the strip and own several book collections, but have never really read much about it prior to this anniversary—but I found it enlightening, and I recommend giving it a listen.

(Incidentally, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned On the Media here before—they don’t mention comics a lot, so probably not. Produced by WNYC, it’s an insightful weekly look at the stories in the news and how they’re being covered, as well as a variety of topics affecting our increasingly information-centric lives, such as copyright law, social media and internet technology, the plight of newspapers, the dangers journalists face around the world, and tons of other media-related topics. In many ways its brand of skeptical media criticism reminds me of a wider-ranging, soberer (though still fairly sarcastic) version of The Daily Show’s approach to covering media, in that there is some overlap in focus, but OTM is more rigorous, with a greater emphasis on the whys of media failures and on finding the actual truths obscured by them. It’s available to listen to through iTunes and it is one of my essential podcasts. If you like the Doonesbury interview, give the whole show a chance.)

MIRACLEMAN: NOT BAD

  • Miracleman #1–22 by Alan Moore, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Chuck Beckum, Rich Veitch, John Totleben, Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham

IN ONE OF ITS DOZENS of great moments exhibiting how war distorts the human soul, Apocalypse Now features the wonderful scene of Robert Duvall and his company surfing off a Vietnamese beach as the jungle behind them is destroyed. The famous line goes, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory,” but more telling is when Duvall gazes wistfully out over the water and says, sadly, “Some day this war is gonna end.” In some ways, that’s how I feel about the Miracleman lawsuits, having finally read the bulk of the series this week.

Miracleman is a strange animal. It’s a fine superhero story, and an influential one, but one that hasn’t been available to the public for a long time. That’s a shame, less because of the quality of the work itself, which is not the best of anyone involved, but because it is a genuine link in comics history, the absence of which makes its influence more difficult to judge, and the unavailability of which warps the historical perception of Miracleman itself. After reading all of the Moore material and some of the Gaiman material, it’s clear that had this series remained in print all this time, its recognition as an important work would be assured, but its legendary status would be greatly diminished.

Hopefully the lawsuit will eventually be resolved and the creators’ shares of the copyrights are honored (though after all this time, I wouldn’t be particularly sad to see the work fall into the public domain, as all work of historical import (or unimportant work, for that matter) eventually does, but that’s another argument for another time). If, like me, a reader goes into Miracleman as much to fill in a gap in their comics knowledge as to enjoy the story, the fact that a rights dispute prevents anyone from reprinting the series legally does harm to comics as a field.

As for the work itself, it is solid, if dated, with artwork of variable quality and florid prose characteristic of early- to mid-’80s Alan Moore. The story is a variation on the tropes of superheroes in the real world, though what sets it apart from Watchmen and other “realistic” superhero stories is that it lacks any kind of traditional superhero plot, up until the end. The superhuman main characters were all created to be weapons in wars that were never fought, and so there are no superplots to be had. The action revolves around Miracleman’s self-discovery and the imperative of protecting his own family and learning his history. The only superbattle comes in the final arc, where Miracleman stops a rampage that is less plot to take over the world than simply depraved slaughter.

The series begins in way familiar from Moore’s other superhero revamps—everything you know about Miracleman is wrong. He didn’t get his powers the way that the “classic” character did, he didn’t fight aliens and supervillains. The second arc, in its exposure of how the superhumans were created and why, mirrors the ways that artists imbue their creations with their own desires and fetishes and gets into the significance of presenting a narrative to explain why we are who we are and what our role in the world is. In the third, Moore recasts his heroes as gods of classical mythology, a precursor to Grant Morrison’s JLA and All-Star Superman. The creation of Miracleman’s pantheon and subsequent reshaping of the world into a fascist utopia is treated as a logical, if unsettling, conclusion to the superhero story. That the story then continues under the pen of Neil Gaiman is a little strange, and the “Golden Age” storyline that follows seems to accomplish little more than making explicit what is already hinted at in Moore’s finale. I didn’t read any of the unfinished “Silver Age,” so it’s possible that it does a better job of defying expectations.

The artwork changes a lot over the course of the series, beginning in naturalistic fashion with work by Garry Leach, whose detailed and realistic people fit well with the human drama of the story, and make the reveal of malevolent superpower at the end of issue #1 seem appropriately unfamiliar, even alien. Leach is there for the first two issues, after which Alan Davis provides art for three issues, with a more graceful, etherial feel that’s a little closer to a traditional superhero style, but softer. After a competent but stiff fill-in from Chuck Beckum, Rick Veitch and later John Totleben take over, bringing a look familiar to fans of Swamp Thing, tightly rendered faces with organic panel borders that slide across the page rather than sitting side by side. It’s an effective look for so melodramatic a work that is also rooted in the mundane more so than even something like Watchmen. For the Gaiman-written issues I read, the art is provided by Mark Buckingham, and his contribution was my favorite part of those chapters, as he affects a different style for each, and for the first time makes the series look like an alternative comic. While DC’s Bizarro Comics and more recently Marvel’s Strange Stories have brought indie creators to superhero comics, Buckingham’s work here is a more serious attempt at melding the two sensibilities and creates some wonderful effects throughout.

I gather from what little I’ve read about Miracleman that the level of sex and violence in a superhero comic are among the ways it has been influential. The violence doesn’t seem very extreme compared to today’s dismemberment fests, though the specific details are still unsettling (skins on laundry lines or a rain of feet). The sex isn’t particularly shocking and often seems more organic to the plot than in most superhero comics. Miracleman and Miraclewoman’s naked flight and sex over London makes sense in their new assumption of godhood, and their superhuman bodies are a more appropriate uniform of that status than any costume, though to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the applause is kind of bullshit. The thing that it’s difficult to imagine making it into a modern superhero comic is Rick Veitch’s vivid portrait of childbirth, a commonplace and inoffensive event which nonetheless would feel out of place in the majority of superhero comics, as unlike extreme violence or explicit sex, it is genuinely grown-up.

Reading the series did make me feel like I had a better grasp on Alan Moore and co.’s early careers, and on the transformative superhero comics of the 1980s. I didn’t love the work, and I do suspect its reputation would be much more modest if it were easier to come by, but for the interesting ideas, at times wonderful artwork, and its importance to comics history, when indeed this lawsuit does end, I’ll certainly be happy to buy a collected edition.

READ THIS WEEK 11/7–11/13:

  • Batman Beyond #4 by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci
    Intriguing cliffhanger, which finally raise the stakes somewhat, but this still feels a little too insular to function as a successful reintroduction of the concept.
  • Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne #6 by Grant Morrison, Lee Garbett, Pere Pérez & Alejandro Sicat
    And somehow everything actually comes together. I’m going to need to reread the whole miniseries before I’m confident that I really have everything straight, but this answered the majority of my questions. Fascinating also to see some of Morrison’s fragmented storytelling techniques translated through more mainstream artists than usual, mostly successfully.
  • Batman: Streets of Gotham #16 by Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen & Derek Fridolfs
    My favorite current Batman comic not written by Grant Morrison, simply because it is so trashy. Previous storylines have featured child prostitution, child cage matches, an evil Santa, Jeph Loeb creation Hush impersonating the “dead” Bruce Wayne and attempting to give away the Wayne fortune, and Zatanna. It’s ugly and silly stuff that would be mildly embarrassing if it weren’t for Dustin Nguyen’s wonderful artwork and Paul Dini’s utter shamelessness in throwing in whatever weird ideas he comes up with and stirring vigorously. The current story is a sequel to Dini and Nguyen’s Detective Comics arc “Heart of Hush” (winner of the Wright Opinion Trashiest Batman Story of 2008 award), and centers on Hush, still impersonating Bruce Wayne, being escorted around by a series of Batman allies, with most of the dramatic tension coming from everyone finding ways to let him know how much they hate him without breaking character (since maintaining the fiction that Wayne is alive is in their interest—poor Alfred has been splitting his time between putting up with a Bruce Wayne impostor in this series and a Thomas Wayne impostor in Batman and Robin), while a recently released mobster plots against Wayne for vague reasons having to do with not liking his mom very much. Zatanna returns, and Dini reminds us that she is in love with Batman, something that I think he himself established in Detective Comics, though this might be the first time she’s been revealed to have felt that way since they were children. The highlight of the issue is the “I’m so going to kill you” expression Nguyen gives her when Hush alludes to their relationship while the two are being interviewed on television. Really, I don’t know how this is a Batman comic, but I love it. There’s also a backup starring Two-Face, but I haven’t gotten around to any of them yet.
  • Booster Gold #36 by Keith Giffen, J.M. Dematteis & Pat Olliffe
    This really is a rare thing, recapturing the feel of a past “glory” without feeling tired. I’m finding myself blissfully laughing at this return to the “Bwahaha”-era Justice League, even if the interruptions to tie it into Generation Lost are fairly uninteresting.
  • Hellboy/Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin, Jill Thompson & Mike Mignola
  • Invincible Iron Man vol. 5: Stark Resilient Book 1 by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca (library)
    Somehow this series just feels drained of momentum. I remember being excited by a lot of the ideas early in the series, like the real danger of an “Iron Man 2.0” not being that Tony Stark doesn’t control it, but that it’s made cheap. By contrast, this volume trots out the tired motif of rival businesses manufacturing their own armor variations, juxtaposed with a new Stark venture that’s familiar from Joe Casey and Dustin Nguyen’s WildC.A.T.s 3.0. Problems with Salvador Larroca’s art are also becoming more apparent—while all the tech looks nice, the people are fairly bland and similar-looking—which may be because I’ve seen more of it, or simply that the story doesn’t distract from it as much as it used to. I’m still puzzling over how Stark was having a hallucination throughout the previous volume, despite his entire brain being erased.
  • The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke
    Cooke’s second Parker adaptation is pure aesthetic pleasure from start to finish, and I was surprised how different it felt from The Hunter in terms of pacing and style. I was particularly enthralled by the “The way it works is this” explanations of the various scores Parker’s friends carry out in the middle of the book, each accompanied by a different, iconic art style suited to the diagrammatic presentation. My retailer also gave me a copy of the 16-page art book that goes with The Outfit, and while it’s short on background material, the Cooke sketches and drawings are naturally lovely.
  • The Smurfs and the Magic Flute by Yvan Delporte & Peyo
    More Smurf fun. I was ready for this to only feature the Smurfs a little, since the back cover warns that Medieval peasants Johan and Peewit are actually the main characters, but the the little, blue guys are major presences once they appear about halfway through. On the basis of this story, though, I’d happily pick up more adventures of Johan and Peewit, who are very funny characters with engaging personalities of their own.
  • Tiny Titans #32 by Art Baltazar & Franco
    Tiny Titans/Little Archie #2 by Art Baltazar & Franco.

    Double dose of Tiny Titans! The issue of the regular series is several months old, but the Archie crossover is new, and it remains incredibly fun. It turns out to be a perfect match, and I was smiling all the way through. Can’t wait for the last one.
  • Usagi Yojimbo #132 by Stan Sakai
  • Zatanna #4–#5 by Paul Dini, Chad Hardin & Wayne Faucher
    And by contrast with the truly loopy Streets of Gotham, this works better than warm milk when I can’t sleep. Let’s have the Zatanna from SoG in this one, maybe looking angry at people impersonating her lifelong crushes. On second thought, let’s not, because then I’d have to switch back to Ambien, and this is cheaper.

READ THIS WEEK 11/14–11/20:

  • Batman: The Return by Grant Morrison, David Finch, Batt & Ryan Winn
    Batman Incorporated #1 by Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette & Michael Lacombe

    The Return is really Incorporated #0, with Batman, Inc. picking up where it leaves off. So far, it’s a great start to the latest change of pace in Morrison’s run on Batman, though overall not the near-perfect debut that Batman and Robin #1 was. Yanick Paquette captures all of the fun of Morrison’s script and has a great time depicting Catwoman flirting with Batman all the way through their mission (for all the loving rendering Howard Chaykin gave the leather of Catoman’s costume in his recent one-shot, he nonetheless kept it zipped all the way up), though David Finch in The Return seems as usual to be trying too hard, and he creates a lot of over-rendered, unclear moments, as well as bats that look like werewolves. Other than the presence of the vaguely defined Leviathan, there’s not much hint of a bigger picture yet, but such was the case with the debuts of the last two segments of Morrison’s Batman. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.
  • Batman Confidential #49 by James Patrick, Steve Scott & Bob Petrecca
    This is a great little done-in-one that a friend found in the breakroom at work and lent to me after he got a kick out of it. The spotlight is on Batman as detective, as he goes about investigating a murder while making idle observations about his surroundings and events earlier in the day that solve tiny, everyday mysteries. It’s very much a Sherlock Holmes take, up until the end, when a scene requires that he temporarily stop doing the sensible thing and be Batman, nicely getting at the mix of the rational an irrational that his calling requires. The art gets across all the forensic detail nicely and then transitions well into action. The art and writing are both tightly done in service to the crime-solving and character business. I’ve never heard of the writer or artist before, but this is strong stuff on both fronts.
  • Empowered vol. 6 by Adam Warren
  • From the Ashes by Bob Fingerman
    I like superheroes, and I like lit and art comics, but I’m at heart a middlebrow guy, and the high-low split of the comics market and discourse often leaves me hurting for something like a good, funny social satire. Well, Bob Fingerman’s vision of being forced into reproductive sex with his wife by a mutated Bill O’Reilley after an unnamed apocalypse fits the bill. Fingerman’s premise of “what if the world ended but all the worst people survived it” and the clever idea of framing the whole thing as a memoir about Fingerman and his wife Michele wandering that landscape create a lot of funny situations and a smart look at how the powerful turn everything to their advantage, even as the worst things that happen to the rest of us are often their fault. The art is half the fun, with a host of mutants, zombies, cannibals and other freaks rendered in a cartoony, almost cute style, while Bob and Michele have appealing designs that keep readers’ empathy. From the Ashes came to my attention when Fingerman was a guest on WTF, a podcast hosted by one of my favorite standup comedians, Marc Maron (Maron also supplies the foreword to this volume), and the episode featuring Fingerman is worth a listen for any comics fan.
  • X’ed Out by Charles Burns (library)
    This is a gorgeous book, and Charles Burns has made the transition from black and white to color beautifully. The art and writing both make the story sickly disquieting, while Doug is just relatable enough to sympathize with, while just enough of a cypher to make room for Burns’s disturbing world to share equal focus. I can already tell, though, that I’m going to have trouble with the wait between installments. I felt like I was just starting to pick up some of the themes and the connections between Doug’s real life and the strange, Tintin-inspired world of his dreams when the book was over, with I don’t know how long before the next chapter.

Images of Doonesbury © Garry Trudeau. Images of Miracleman © hell, who knows? Images of The Smurfs and the Magic Flute © Peyo. From the Ashes © Bill Fingerman.

Random Thoughts and Space Girls – My Week in Comics Oct. 31–Nov. 6

November 24, 2010

This week: Some quick bits of nothingness you should probably ignore, a really cool-looking all-ages book you definitely shouldn’t ignore, and the things I didn’t ignore this week, because I read them.


FOUR THOUGHTS TO START NOVEMBER

NOT A LOT caught my attention this week. It’s possible I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t have a lot to add to the thing about Kate Beaton not liking it when guys sexually harass her.

So, here are some short, random thoughts in lieu of real thoughts:

  • I hope part of Batman Inc. is all the bat characters getting business cards. I think more superheroes should have business cards.
  • Please, let’s have a moratorium on referring to non-comics readers as “civilians.” Who the hell do you think you are, a soldier? You’re just being patronizing.
  • I really don’t think numbering a comic #654.1 (and sticking it between #654 & #655) makes it seem new-reader friendly. It’s actually kinda confusing.
  • Wait, Strontium Dog isn’t a dog?

ANTICIPATION: ZITA THE SPACEGIRL

OKAY, one longer bit for the week.

I never browsed the Previews catalog before I worked at Dark Horse, but now that I get a copy at work I like getting to keep up with what’s in there, and this month Zita the Spacegirl jumped out at me. It’s published by First Second, which is one of my favorite newer publishers, with a great mix of international, lit and all-ages/kids’ comics. As is surely obvious from the cover, Zita the Spacegirl falls into that last category, and it looks like a great entry into it.

The first thing that caught my eye was the perfect, simple design of Zita’s outfit. I love how her collar and belt connect to make the “Z,” and the green cape offsets the gray and white costume nicely. The Previews blurb directed me to the book’s website, where creator Ben Hatke has an animated trailer, production blog and, most importantly, four Zita webcomics that moved me from interested to sold. Hatke’s blog also includes a link to the first chapter of the graphic novel on First Second’s website. It’s a well-paced intro, but the humor of the shorter pieces are what really grabbed me.

From the webcomics and book chapter, Zita is clearly an adventure story with a plucky heroine and clean, appealing cartooning style—I’d expect as much from a Flight alum like Hatke—but just as importantly, it’s funny, and in a way that makes me believe in the character of Zita. The comics feature an amusing approach to the culture shock of dealing with a variety of alien species. It looks confusing in a real and funny way that I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot before. There are also plenty of visual gags beautifully taking advantage of the comics form and subverting expectations—Hatke’s unorthodox use of word balloons with heart icons in the first strip is a favorite. The many kinds of aliens themselves are simply designed but appealing.

Like I said, the book is in this month’s Previews, so there’s still time to ask your local comics shop to order it. For some reason, Previews only has the softcover edition ($10.99, or $6.04 at my online retailer of choice, Discount Comic Book Service), but the hardcover edition ($17.99) is available through Amazon.com and other retailers. Both editions come out in the beginning of February. Meantime, check out the webcomics and preview, and bug your retailer.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • 20th Century Boys vol. 11 by Naoki Urasawa
    Still feels like if Grant Morrison were a manga writer. The mysteries within mysteries continue to grab me, and the inherent silliness of how this plot to take over the world is based on a group of kids’ fantasy (which, really, is the only place where “plots to take over the world” make real sense) plays so well against the very real emotional stakes for each character in the huge cast. No explicit references to Osamu Tezuka like the last volume, but you have to love a character actually getting past a bunch of heavily armed guards by holding the villainous Friend’s “most treasure menko” (playing cards) hostage.
  • Action Comics #894 by Paul Cornell, Pete Woods, Nick Spencer & RB Silva
    As only a moderate fan of Sandman, I though Death of the Endless was handled well here, and while the story overall hasn’t had a ton of momentum, enough clues to its import are creeping in around the edges to keep me interested, and single-issue character showcases like this are good enough once a month. I liked the Jimmy Olson backup better this month than last, though the weird art where everyone looks sculpted from marble instead of alive doesn’t do much for me.
  • Adventure Comics #519 by Paul Levitz, Eduardo Pansica, Eber Ferreira, Jeff Lemire, Mahmud Asrar & John Dell
  • Batman and Robin #16 by Grant Morrison, Cameron Stewart, Frazier Irving & Chris Burnham
    Don’t usually mind spoilers a lot, but I think that the ending of this issue would have hit me better if it hadn’t been the headline on Newsarama and other sites prior to my reading the issue—hell, I’m on the West Coast, so prior to my store even being open. I mean, really, the headline that you see on the main page? Fuck that.
  • Batman/Catwoman: Follow the Money by Howard Chaykin
    And then in a huge contrast with Morrison’s multiyear bat epic, Howard Chaykin’s new one-shot is a fast-paced romp featuring Batman and Catwoman tracking down Wayne Enterprises’ stolen pension fund. It’s kind of like a Batman version of Oliver Stone’s gloriously outsized Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, though things never get too earnest, with the inclusion of over-the-top villain the Cavalier allowing for three different takes on whether dressing up and jumping around rooftops is serious business or great fun.

      In sort of funny timing, Batman is worried that an investigation into Wayne Enterprises’ accounts will reveal all the equipment he’s bought as Batman, just as Batman and Robin #16 had him announce publicly that W.E. funds Batman, but that’s just one of those things that happens when a single character appears in multiple titles. It does lead to a nifty bit of ethics-bending that doesn’t feel forced and shows just how laughably Batman compartmentalizes his fight for justice and status as a criminal.

      As always, the book looks unmistakably like Chaykin, with a classic, barrel-chested Batman, dominatrix Catwoman, and a series of parallel page layouts to introduce or draw connections between characters and situations. There are several nice visual touches, from the weird cover composition in which a dour Batman is pushed out of the image by a cheerful Catwoman, to the panel of Batman and Catwoman working on computer in cubicles, ID’ed only by their shadows.

  • Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #4 by Brian Augustyn, Mark Waid & Joe Staton
    So it turns out there have been two Elseworlds Batman comics recasting the Bat universe into a Citizen Kane analogue, not just the more recent Bendis-written one (was that his only DC comic?). Bendis’s, drawn by his Alias collaborator Michael Gaydos, is fun, but it’s short enough that the gimmick is all it really has time for. This one’s a bit less faithful to the structure and final reveal of Welles’s masterpiece is than Bendis and Gaydos’s, but it’s entertaining in its craziness and actually has an interesting dual-mystery that puts more at stake than simply who is Batman. The art is a perfect fit for the story and brings a lot of energy to a lot of scenes of exposition. I did figure out who the mystery investigator was pretty early, though. (In a funny coincidence, Follow the Money namechecks Kane as well.)
  • Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson
  • Chobits Omnibus vol. 2 by CLAMP
  • Saga of the Swamp Thing Book Three by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, et al.
    As good as ever, now in hardcover.
  • Sweet Tooth #15 by Jeff Lemire
    With Gus and the other animal kids on the run and weird revelations about his father’s new religion and possible culpability in the plague, Sweet Tooth only barely resembles the series that it started out as, but the transition from kid lost in the woods to where we are now has felt very natural, and Lemire’s constant experimentation with storytelling and page layouts has kept everything visually arresting.

Images of Batman, Inc. & Batman/Catwoman: Follow the Money © DC Comics. Images of Zita the Spacegirl © Ben Hatke.

Sharing good, stealing bad – My October in Comics part 4: 10/24–10/30

November 21, 2010

This week: As usual, I fail to take a side in the latest online debates, agreeing wholeheartedly with both Steve Lieber and Colleen Doran in their opposite approaches to the online spread of their work. Plus, some more updates on my beloved .cbz format (a great option for legal online comics), and a standard-issue What I Read.


STEVE LIEBER OKAY WITH GIVING AWAY COMICS, BUT WOULD PREFER THEY’RE NOT STOLEN

STEVE LIEBER’s recent entry into a 4chan thread in which a member posted every page of Underground, the Image caving miniseries on which he collaborated with Jeff Parker and Ron Chan, taps into a variety of arguments creators, publishers, retailers and fans of comics and other intellectual property have been having as long as the Internet has made it possible to widely “share” copyrighted material. Lieber’s response to finding his work posted has been reported as innovative, and it was remarkably measured and well done, but his ability to retake control of the situation came down to some unusual circumstances, and the much bigger deal is really his subsequent decision to make the work freely available himself.

Since the story has been well reported already, the short version is that Underground was made available on 4chan, after which Lieber posted to the thread himself and, rather than angrily post about the theft of his work, engaged in a discussion about the work and his career with the other posters, and eventually made Underground and some of his other work available for download at his own website. Along the way, he posted a sales chart which showed a spike after Underground was posted on 4chan, though it wasn’t clear if the spike was after the work went up or after Lieber appeared in the thread.

This is the latest in a series of anecdotal instances in which the illicit spreading of copyrighted material enlarges the audience for that material, translating into greater sales, either because people who downloaded the work decided they wanted a permanent version and to support its owners, or because the greater visibility of the work reminded someone who was already interested that they wanted to buy it. I tend to be convinced by the anecdotes in some cases, but there are certainly anecdotes that go the other way. More recently (not in the period ostensibly covered by this column, but I’ve fallen behind and pretending it’s still nearly a month ago serves no real purpose) Colleen Doran, the creator of A Distant Soil, blogged at The Hill about the damage she worries that the free availability of her work has done to her bottom line.

So why has Lieber experienced a sales increase while Doran and others have seen sales slip away to online copyright infringement? For one, it seems like Undergound’s initial low sales were not due to readers finding the comic for free online, but instead few people reading it at all, legally or illegally. Underground could only benefit from increased visibility, but even so my suspicion is that much of the sales increase came after Lieber joined the thread on 4chan and did so in, for him, typically friendly fashion. Many of the posters don’t seem to understand how comics are produced or monetized, and it was Lieber (as well as artist Erika Moen) providing education on the matter rather than vilifying the original poster that made a big difference. Notably, this is not an opportunity that exists on peer-to-peer networks or aggregators of bittorrents; it was only because this was a thread on a forum that Lieber was able to interject as he did.

Doran’s piece focuses not only on lost money, but also on the injustice of losing control of her work to people with little personal investment in it. She has mentioned on her blog that sales and profits increased when she herself put her comics up online, but that she has never seen a similar dividend from others making her work available. Which I believe, just as much as I believe the cases where people say that “sampling” material online later led them to buy it. The spread of copyrighted material online clearly doesn’t affect every artist equally. Just as clear, from Doran’s point of view, is that the money to be made or lost and the rage over people taking a creator’s exclusive right to the distribution of material are related but separate issues. Lieber chose to overlook the injustice and try to turn the situation to his advantage, and I applaud him. But it’s certainly not something that every artist can do all the time—Doran mentions losing count of the illegal sources for her work at 145. Lieber’s experience is an encouraging sign, especially in how well the 4chan posters responded to friendly educating, but a tough one to know how to replicate.

Where I am especially encouraged is the fact that at the very least it is an argument against the notion that people online ideologically refuse to pay for content. It is however a reminder that on a computer it’s easy to lose sight of who is hurt by illegal downloading, and that constant reminders are necessary. I look forward to more experiments from people like Lieber and Doran in monetizing free online content, as they both do, and to there eventually being enough examples of how to do so that they rise above the level of anecdotal evidence (I’m particularly curious as to how long the higher sales of Underground lasted and how successful Lieber and Parker’s suggested $5 donations for the downloadable version of the comic has been). I also hope that we’ll eventually see more genuine research into how material spreads online and if trends leading to sales can be found, since it has occurred in at least some cases. Since this isn’t going away, in spite of whatever legislation is passed, it will be necessary to figure out how to make the best of it.

The moral rights of creators of content is a different issue. While I might be more convinced by the notion that that the online spread of work can lead to sales than is a Colleen Doran (though again, I have no doubt she is correct about her own case, and that gives her every reason to be suspicious of the entire notion), it strikes me as obvious that she has every right to object to her work being posted without her consent, and if she objects then it shouldn’t happen. Even if Doran were provably wrong and was leaving money on the table by not embracing illegal downloads, the copyright she owns on her work gives her the right to determine how her work is distributed. And she’s right, of course, that the illegal posting of her and other people’s work is not advertising; whatever advertising function it ends up playing is incidental and unintentional.

What Lieber’s experience shows is that the incidental and unintentional can sometimes be harnessed, and I’m very happy that he’s been able to make that work to whatever extent he has, but the important thing to remember is that no one example is proof that illegal downloads are “good” or “bad.” The ability to turn them to a creator’s sales advantage comes down to the circumstances, and it never overrides that creator’s rights to their own work. Lieber’s public stance is that he’s relatively okay with what 4chan did with Underground, Doran’s is that she’s not okay with what others have done with her work. I’m always going to be in the camp that applauds Leiber’s ability to make peace, but that doesn’t remotely preclude me from supporting Doran’s right to go to war.

Related: I interviewed Lieber about Underground and other stuff around the time it debuted.

TWO .CBZ UPDATES:

AN ADDITIONAL DETAIL I learned from Lieber’s move to give away several of his comics online is that I have been missing a step in my understanding of .cbz creation, one which his much larger audience than mine hit upon fairly quickly. The process that I previously laid out involves creating the underlying .zip file in Mac OS’s Finder, which is fine except that it inserts some unnecessary database files that can mess up reading the comic on a PC. Those files need to be removed to ensure that the comic will read correctly. Lieber recommend Zipcleaner, so I recommend it, too. My old tutorial still applies, but now make sure you run Zipcleaner after creating the .zip file.

Also, I’ve been doing further research into .cbz readers, since I liked the one I’d been using, FFView, but thought I could probably do better with one that had been updated more recently, and came across two that I liked, though both appear to be Mac-only. I should look for some PC ones. The first is ComicBookLover, which takes its organization and presentation cues from iTunes. However, many of its more useful features require registering and paying $25, which was too much money for me to justify choosing it over free alternatives, even if it is more full-featured. The free one that I found and liked is called Simple Comic. While FFView hasn’t been updated in a while, Simple Comic’s version 1.7 was released this year, and it’s cleaner and more streamlined than FFView. It also reads .pdfs, which is great, as that’s the format that a lot of the review comics I get these days come in. Like Lieber’s comics, Simple Comic is freeware, but the developer asks for donations, so I pitched in $5, the same amount that Lieber asks for. I haven’t downloaded any of his comics, having bought most of them once and Underground twice—in single issues and the paperback. I recommend them all, and if you go with the .cbz of .pdf versions, Simple Comic is a perfectly pleasant way to read them.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #38 by Joss Whedon, Scott Allie, Georges Jeanty & Andy Owens
  • Casanova: Luxuria #3 by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Bá
  • Chi’s Sweet Home vol. 2 by Konami Kanata
    Not as addictive as Vertical’s Twin Spica, but this is growing on me as the bigger picture is coming into focus.

  • Fantastic Four #584 by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting & Paul Mounts
    “Three” is picking up steam. As an FF fan, I had to pretend that Ben Grimm getting to spend some time as a human rather than being the Thing wasn’t something that’s happened several times before, but that aside it was enjoyable, and I’m surprised how well Steve Epting’s realistic take on the team is working for me after being fairly bored by Bryan Hitch’s. The only real problem I’m having with this arc is one that I’ve been having with Hickman’s run in general: how predetermined everything seems, with each of the single-issue stories from earlier in the run telegraphing their status as pieces to be assembled later and even the countdown to tragedy on the cover of each issue of this arc. The structure feels like it dictates the story more than the other way around, and at this point it’s going to need a very satisfying payoff to support all that weight. I’m on until the end of “Three,” but that end will determine if I stick with Fantastic Four past that.
  • Gantz vol. 13 by Hiroya Oku
  • Incognito: Bad Influences #1 by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
    Mostly setup, but a very promising intro to the premise.
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #6 by Paul Levitz, Francis Portela, Phil Jimenez, Yildiray Cinar, Scott Koblish & Wayne Faucher
    For a long time, the fact that this wasn’t actively stupid to the point of offensiveness like many supercomics carried me through it, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s enough. Yeah, that makes no sense. Basically, I find this comic pleasant but am slowly realizing that it’s not exactly hooking me, though I’m kind of intrigued by the Legion Academy.
  • The Muppet Show Comic Book: On the Road by Roger Langridge & Shelli Paroline
    It’s weird; The Muppet Show is before my time, and it’s something that I have more experience of as a cultural phenomenon than as something I’ve actually seen, so it’s hard for me to gauge how well this does or doesn’t capture the flavor of the show (I mean, I’m not a total muppet newbie, but I certainly remember Sesame Street much better), but something that it exudes just makes it feel like it must. It’s so confident and consistent that it has to be getting it right. But that aside, this series has remained very funny and beautifully illustrated, and is quickly becoming my biggest reference point for the Muppets, and I can only imagine that the same would become true of any actual kids reading this ostensible kids’ comic.
  • Papercutter #13 by Matt Wiegle, Tim Root & Jonas Madden-Connor
  • The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror #16 by Evan Dorkin, Peter Kuper, Kelly Jones, Kelvin Mao, Tom Peyer, Tone Rodriguez & Lemmy Kilmister
    Less bizarre than last year’s “Kramers Ergot” issue, but I think a lot funnier, with Evan Dorkin wreaking his usual gleeful havoc and a delightful combination that never would have occurred to me: Kelly Jones drawing a Homer-centric story.
  • Strange Science Fantasy #3 by Scott Morse
    I am loving the pure fun that Morse is clearly having with this series of done-in-one, high-concept mashups. Morse’s art has always blown me away, and here it looks as good as ever supported by silly ideas that are just good enough for one burst of cartooning. The details in this one, which borrows film terms to build a bizarre noir story, put it over the top for me, with inspired bits of literalism like the Key Grip having hands made of keys.

Images of Underground © Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber. Images of Strange Science Fantasy © Scott Morse.

Year-by-year with Maggie and Hopey – My October in Comics part 3: 10/17-10/23

November 16, 2010

This week: It’s all about what I read. And what did I read? Lots of “Locas,” and a little of some other things.


The “LOCAS” BINGE

  • Locas in Love
  • Dicks and Deedees
  • Ghosts of Hoppers
  • The Education of Hopey Glass
  • “La Maggie La Loca” and “Gold Diggers of 1969” from Love and Rockets vol. II #20

THE THING THAT I LOVE ABOUT both Jaime Hernandez’s “Locas” stories and Gilbert Hernandez’s “Palomar” (y’know, aside from the stunning artwork, real-feeling characters, great comedy, ever-expanding worlds and moving storylines) is the power of accumulation in serial fiction.

Accumulation is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I mentioned it briefly last week in reference to discussing The Invisibles with my uncle, who is reading that series for the first time. It’s also on my mind in relation to the 40th anniversary of Doonesbury, a strip that’s been important to me since I discovered The Doonesbury Chronicles as a kid. I was too young to really understand most of the politics—especially since the book only covers through the early 1970s, nearly ten years before I was born—but I was taken with the characters, who rang true despite the vast difference between college life in the ’70s and childhood in the ’90s.

As I shifted my focus to the modern incarnation of the strip, I found that the characters had changed considerably, but were still rooted in who they had been in that old book I found in my parents’ house (and which has since become a prized possession in mine; I’m pretty sure they’re aware of this). It was my first exposure to a long-running serialized story, and I remain amazed at how Garry Trudeau balances of-the-moment political satire with a cast of characters who have aged in real time and whose shared histories added so much weight to more storylines than I can list.

I came to Love and Rockets much more recently (at the time I latched onto Doonesbury I was a comic-strip devotee but hadn’t discovered comic books yet), but it doesn’t take long to see the same dynamic at play. I think these four collections and one single issue make up all of the “Locas” stories from Penny Century and L&R vol. II, and they depict a Maggie and Hopey dramatically different from those of the early stories, but like latter-day Mike Doonesbury, Mark Slackmeyer and B.D., traces of their younger selves are still evident in their appearances and personalities. No longer young punks, they are now in middle age, with Hopey beginning to settle down and in the midst of a belated maturity and career change, and Maggie is now the superintendent of an LA apartment complex and regretting how little she has to show for her life.

These are stories that could be told without the baggage that the characters’ long publication histories bring with them, but ones that are so much richer for having that background. When we see how worn out and sad Maggie seems, it is with not just the knowledge that she used to be happier, but with a host of shared memories, years of time spent with the character that makes a reader, even one who read those stories only two or three years ago instead of 20, feel the diminishment of energy that plagues her. While it’s not all so sad, the bulk of these volumes has the feeling of sticking around long after other stories would have ended, focusing on what remains when life doesn’t go as planned, or develops a second act, or simply has to continue when one part of it is over.

That last part is particularly in play in the Ray D. sections. Ray is in a position that most of us have been at some point: he was in a relationship (with Maggie) that he probably could have been content to make a life out of, and now that it’s over he has to figure out how to try to be with someone else. His encounters with the “Frogmouth”—so named for her nails-on-chalkboard voice—perfectly captures the struggle of figuring out how to reenter the dating world and try to let a new person inhabit a part of your life that used to belong to someone else, even as you intermittently miss that person. Again, it’s so effective in part (I want to make sure I don’t discount Hernandez’s incredible “acting” and characterization skills in making these stories work) because we have seen and remember Maggie and Ray’s time together, and how in love he was, as well as rough parts that he is probably choosing to forget in his pining for her.

Along with the moments that draw their power from readers’ knowledge of the past, Hernandez is also a master of the well-placed flashback. Details are often filled in as needed, but organically enough that it never feels like he’s just thought of them. In fact, including information as-needed is a staple of these stories, as new situations are introduced (Maggie’s marriage, Hopey’s eyepatch) and several chapters will pass before we learn what has actually happened. Hernandez has used this particular tool often enough that he knows we’ll understand to wait to be filled in rather than thinking we’ve missed something, and he rewards that patience by holding the answers until it is most dramatic to answer them, and somehow always manages to pair that moment with a reveal that comes naturally in conversation rather than feeling like forced exposition.

Each element of the story is strengthened immensely by Hernandez’s art, which is essentially perfect. The compositions and the balance of black and white always impress, and the body language and facial expressions show incredible versatility, broad when necessary for comic effect, but subtle and devastating in emotional moments. The gist of stories is completely clear without dialogue. Hernandez’s style is not at all showy, and it doesn’t need to be, though there are also no shortcuts. The panel-to-panel storytelling is crystal clear, but a little examination shows that angles aren’t repeated unless necessary; Hernandez keeps each page as visually interesting as possible without the artistry ever intruding upon the story.

The difference in appearance of each character from earlier versions completely sells the passage of time, and in ways unique to each character. It was a huge moment years ago when Hernandez jumped forward a bit in his story and began drawing a heavier Maggie, but middle-aged Maggie is an equally perfect transformation. She hasn’t gotten any larger, but over time the weight has moved, now more in her neck and arms, while thanks to Hernandez’s talent for capturing the female form, she remains beautiful, and Ray’s continued lust for her is clearly more than nostalgia. Hopey is still rail-thin, but subtle adjustments to her body language, dress and hair communicate her advancing age, and giving her glasses changes everything. And when Hernandez puts in a flashback to the days of the young Maggie and Hopey, as when he reveals how Maggie and her husband met, he flawlessly recaptures their old looks, with the details to place the new story onto the timeline with the older ones carefully considered.

Hernandez’s world is so complete, with such a large and complex cast, that it’s possible to forget that it resembles, most of the time, the real world. When politics or social satire enters, as they occasionally do, it’s momentarily jarring, but the world of “Locas” is broad enough that it feels capable of absorbing anything. Suddenly those politics and satire reflect our world, but they’re also an organic part of the world on the page, and the antics of Election Day, on which Hopey serves as a poll worker, mirrors the chaos of Maggie and Hopey’s lives. Similarly, this series that began in a decidedly sci-fi vein is able to integrate fantastic elements just as easily. Not only does “La Maggie La Loca” explicitly reference some of those earlier stories and confirm that, while Hernandez may have moved away from that milieu, he hasn’t disowned it, but these volumes are where the superheroes that will briefly take over in Love and Rockets New Stories #1 and #2 start to appear. In one memorable scene, Maggie and Hopey watch the apartment of a tenant Maggie suspects of being a superhero, and share a triumphant whoop when they spot her returning home via rooftops. Now I’m going to have to reread the superhero arc to remind myself how each of the figures introduced in these pages plays in.

I’m as excited as anyone that the graphic novel is gradually becoming the standard model of the modern comic book, but among its many virtues, the fact that Love and Rockets has always been presented as a series is important. This is the comic book that elevated the serial format of comics from soap opera to serialized literature. It’s hard to wait between the annual installments, but it’s worth it to check in with old friends, and whatever else he does with the rest of his creativity, I’m happy that Hernandez always finds time to keep up with the “Locas” world.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Atelier by Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá
    This is sort of twins Moon and Bá’s Comics Anti-Manifesto. It’s not about why someone should make comics, or how they should make them, but instead about how it feels for the two of them to make comics. The title means “an artist’s studio or workroom,” and looking around their studio is the impression Moon and Bá want to give you. In a nod toward universality, the text is in four languages, but it’s the drawings that really carry the weight, with short, wordless chapters showing the twins growing up making pictures, and a joyous exploration of some of the things ink on paper can create. Beautiful stuff that definitely induces a smile for the few minutes it takes to go through it once and then pore over it more carefully a second time.
  • Batman and Robin #15 by Grant Morrison & Frazier Irving
    On first read, this seemed like it was marking time until the next issue, Morrison’s final, in which the original Batman will return to defeat Dr. Hurt and explain how everything ties together. Thinking about it more later, it occurred to me that this might actually be the most important issue of the Batman and Robin portion of Morrison’s ongoing Batman cycle, as it features Hurt tempting Damian to sell his soul and serve him in return for sparing Dick Grayson, the current Batman. Those circumstances aren’t all that different from the ones described in Batman #666’s origin of Damian-as-future-Batman. It may be that Damian rebuffing Hurt in this issue is the action that prevents that future, in which Professor Pyg and his addiction plague have ravaged Gotham. I also appreciated the “Gotcha” note Batman left in the box reflecting his line to Darkseid in Final Crisis, even if the “Looks like the villain’s won until they get to the last step of their plan and discover Batman’s beaten them to it” plot beat is a familiar one from Morrison’s handling of the character. And I enjoyed Frazier Irving’s artwork on these three issues much more than his muddy contribution to Return of Bruce Wayne. This is the weirdest and most deranged-looking Batman comic in some time, and it’s a perfect look for this storyline.
  • Doom Patrol #15 by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, Ron Randall & John Livesay
  • Gantz vol. 12 by Hiroya Oku
  • Invincible Iron Man vol. 4: Stark Disassembled by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca (library)
    I was completely immersed in the first three volumes of this series, but this felt like a letdown after them, an entire volume devoted to “rebooting” a Tony Stark whose memory has been erased, and who nonetheless somehow has to fight his way through a dream reality in an adventure mirroring the real-world struggle of his allies to revive him. It feels like a desperate attempt to compensate for a lack of action in the main storyline and serves to drag out the whole incident without greatly deepening it. I’m willing to treat this as a blip, and already have the next volume on hold from the library, but this really felt like a lot of hand-wringing in place of a next chapter.

Images of Ghost of Hoppers © Jaime Hernandez. Images of Batman and Robin © DC Comics.

Lost in the Suburbs and the Genre Oasis – My October in Comics part 2: 10/10-10/16

October 28, 2010

This week: Less than I intended. One of this week’s items had to be pushed out into a future column, so we’re running mercifully short this time. Still, there is a section of gushing about Portland landmark Powell’s Books and its Beaverton location’s comics-shelving method, plus the usual What I Read, with hidden reporting on the Wordstock Literary Festival. So there’s that.


POWELL’S GETS COMICS LIKE FEW BOOKSTORES DO

AS I MENTIONED in the previous column, the latest Love and Rockets has inspired me to catch up on Jaime Hernandez’s half of the series. I’m up-to-date on Gilbert’s, but there’s a gap between the latest Jaime material and where I left off with his “Locas.” I have copies of all of the recent books except for Ghost of Hoppers, which a visit to powells.com told me was at Powell’s Books’s (Portland’s massive independent bookstore, which I think is still the largest in the country) Beaverton location.

Normally I would just order the book and it would arrive at the downtown Powell’s, which is a short walk from my apartment, but it’s been a while since I visited the Beaverton store, with its completely different stock of comics. So, misreading the directions on Powell’s website, I jumped on the light rail, and was reminded how narrow the world that I generally inhabit is, as a carless person living in an urban area. Honestly, you forget suburbs even exist, and it is a rude awakening to walk block after block of identical housing developments and strip malls. Anyway, much later, I made it to Powell’s, where the point of this story actually occurs.

I don’t usually ask for help in bookstores, since I like to browse and I end up visiting sections I wouldn’t otherwise if I knew where I was going. I found the manga section first, as it is fairly large, and interestingly, it’s not directly connected to the rest of the comics, though it isn’t far, only an aisle or two away.

When I did find the comics, I quickly noticed something I’ve never seen in a bookstore before: the comics were broken into several genres rather than lumped together as one thing. True, the downtown Powell’s divides comics into Manga, Superheroes and General Graphic Novels (and occasionally shelves them outside of the comics section altogether, like placing copies of The Alcoholic with writer Jonathan Ames’s prose novels), which isn’t bad, but the Beaverton store does even better, with the non-manga comics section broken down into Horror/Fantasy, Superhero, Alternative Comics and Thriller/Mystery. There was also a freestanding display near the manga with a few additional titles, such as a large edition of Crumb’s Fritz the Cat. Powell’s is a very progressive store in terms of what it carries and how knowledgable its staff is, so it’s not representative, but the way the comics were sorted was heartening, as it means some bookstores are starting to get the basic tenet of the graphic novel surge: comics are a medium, not a genre.

Though my browsing was cut short by the amount of time it took me to get to the store, seeing this made my day, and I was still happy about it when I finally got home with my used copies of Ghost of Hoppers and Evan Dorkin’s Hectic Planet vol. 1 (easy impulse buy at $5.50 in the Alternative Comics section). More on the Jaime binge in the next column.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #5 by Grant Morrison, Ryan Sook, Pere Pérez & Mick Gray
    Coming together. I should by now be used to details that seem like throwaway lines becoming fully fleshed-out plot points many issues down the line, but Morrison is still good at surprising with them. I’m currently e-mailing back and forth with my uncle, who is reading The Invisibles for the first time, and explaining exactly this point to him, how much of the pleasure of Morrison’s serialized work is in accumulation, as references and story beats pile up and build over time. Nice work on Sook’s part almost plausibly combining Gotham of the ’80s (’90s?) with a ’30s aesthetic, and on Pérez’s part imitating Sook. I likely wouldn’t have noticed the artist change if it weren’t called out in the credits.
  • I Thought You Would Be Funnier by Shannon Wheeler
    Picked this up at Wordstock, Portland’s literary festival, where I worked the Dark Horse booth this year. Usually there is a bigger comics area, but this year the show conflicted with NYCC, and that gutted the section, which consisted of just DH, Cosmic Monkey Comics (a local retailer), the Stumptown Foundation, Stumptown Underground (an area zine), and Shannon Wheeler, whose booth was next to us. Wordstock itself took up considerably less space than in previous years, though I’m told attendance was about level. Shannon and I thought it was very funny to announce that he would sign at the DH booth between 3 & 3:30 on Sunday, but most people who saw the sign just seemed confused, as he was at the booth right next to DH all weekend, and the other guys working the booth with me just looked at me like I was an idiot.

    Anyway, the book is a selection of Wheeler’s rejected New Yorker cartoons. Seven have been published in the magazine, but to get that many in, hundreds have to be drawn, so many of the best are in this book. I’m not sure what you say about a book of gag cartoons except that they made me laugh, which they did. I’m not a close enough reader of New Yorker cartoons to have ever gotten a sense of who the individual cartoonists are from the magazine, so I’ve always enjoyed single-cartoonist collections as an opportunity to get to know them and the themes they return to better. Wheeler’s worldview as expressed here is familiar from his comic strips Too Much Coffee Man, Postage Stamp Funnies and How to Be Happy: ironic, somewhat cynical, but ultimately wide-eyed and almost innocent. Oh, and funny.

  • Knight and Squire #1 by Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton
    Funny stuff, and an impressive feat of world-building, but I don’t think I’ll have a real sense of this until I’ve read another.
  • New Avengers #5 by Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger & Laura Martin
  • Nightwing: Year One by Chuck Dixon, Scott Beatty, Scott McDaniel & Andy Owens (library)
    I had forgotten how well Dixon handles these characters. For what could so easily be an exercise in connect-the-dot continuity work, this is a real story about Dick Grayson moving out from under his longtime mentor’s influence and establishing his own identity, which makes an interesting read in this era of Grayson-as-Batman. I have also always enjoyed Dixon’s take on Dick and Barbara Gordon’s flirtatious quasi-relationship. And there aren’t many more perfect matches between artist and character in recent superhero comics than Scott McDaniel and Nightwing. This story draws even more attention than usual to Dick’s circus background, so it’s a pleasure to see McDaniel, who specializes in great aerial angles and acrobatic anatomy, return to the character.
  • Papercutter #14 by Dave Roche, Nate Beatty, Brian Maruca, Jim Rugg & Farel Dalrymple
  • Rambo 3.5 by Jim Rugg
    Intense. Insane. Hilarious.
  • Tiny Titans/Little Archie #1 by Art Baltazar & Franco Aureliani
    This was exactly what I wanted it to be. Adorable as can be, and made me laugh in several places. Read this.
  • Whoa Nellie! by Jaime Hernandez
    The beginning of my Jaime binge. It feels like its mainly an art exercise, but it has a very nice story of friendship bumping up against ambition, and is loads of fun.

Images of Hectic Planet © Evan Dorkin. Images of Tiny Titans/Little Archie © DC Comics & Archie Comics

Crumb goes for a ride and three from NYCC – My October in Comics part 1: 10/3-10/9

October 25, 2010

This week: So behind, but I don’t want to blow three weeks of stuff on one triple-length column, so I’ll be putting up three columns this week and then try to get back on schedule for next week’s. Today: the different goals of Crumb and Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, three short thoughts on stories from NYCC and, of course, What I Read.


CRUMB: GENIUS, CRAZY PERSON

IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME since I’ve seen Crumb, at least ten years, and I’m not entirely certain I saw the whole thing back then in my early or mid teens. Picking up the new Criterion edition from the library, I was surprised by the details that had stuck with me—the sexual gratification Crumb gets from his own drawings—and by what I had forgotten—the near-overshadowing of Robert Crumb in the film by his brothers Charles and Maxon.

I realized only partway through that the scene I remembered most vividly—Crumb finishing an interview to jump onto the back of a waiting woman, who carries him away—is in fact from American Splendor, which explains why I remember it so well, as I’ve seen that film much more recently. Instead, Crumb treats viewers to the more disturbing scene of a pestering Crumb coercing an unwilling ex-girlfriend into giving him a similar ride at a museum exhibit of his work, climbing onto her as she tries to get away before reluctantly giving in, the camera crew following along.

That’s a fairly telling moment of this portrait of the artist. It’s not a film that is very interested in delving very deeply into comics or Crumb’s place in the field, which is likely a factor in its appeal outside of the comics world; it’s more a look at a very strange and talented artist and his even stranger (and perhaps more talented?) family. Which is not to say it completely ignores Crumb the artist—it quite successfully translated printed pages into moving-picture material without resorting to animating it, and some of the most transfixing moments are of Crumb drawing. Much like how people who saw Jack Kirby draw have described the sight, Crumb has that ability to just draw, with no underdrawing or no outlining, just filling in detail from one edge until a picture is complete.

Crumb the human being is harder to spend two hours with, but no less fascinating. There is no requirement that artists be moral paragons, but in Crumb’s case it is precisely his artistic accomplishments that allow him to get away with open misogyny and possible racism. At least one commentator says that Crumb unleashes his unfiltered id into his comics, and Crumb himself notes that he doesn’t think much about why he draws the things he draws. That lack of reflection is borne out when he is asked about how he draws black people, and rather than answer the question, he argues that only “white liberals” complain. I find that unlikely, but we next see a white woman object to and two white men defend Crumb’s portrayal of blacks. No black art critics are asked their opinion. It’s admirable that the film doesn’t shy from this element of Crumb’s art, but it is surprising, given that the film brings it up, that it doesn’t try very hard to confront it. Nevertheless, it is clear that what many of the interview subjects of the film respond to in Crumb’s work is a combination of its outre element (we are talking about Underground Comix here) and its unquestionable artistry—what message, if any, it actually has is secondary.

Crumb’s actual statements about the world aren’t particularly different from any other “hippy” (in quotes since Crumb notes that he was never actually able to fit in amongst hippy circles) artists out there, though we see enough of his general attitude that we can speculate many of his opinions come as much from his psychology as his politics. For instance, it’s hard to say if his complaints about logo T-shirts being “walking advertisements” are a political stance or a symptom of misanthropy. There’s an undeniable conservative streak at play in the notion that the world of decades ago, before his birth, were a better time.

The other subjects of the film are an interesting bunch as well. Aline Kominksy-Crumb comes across much more forceful, confident and louder than her husband, and he seems at times overwhelmed, a dynamic that reminded me of Soon-Yi Previn, Woody Allen’s wife, in Wild Man Blues. I found myself wondering if this type of relationship is something that quiet, neurotic artists are attracted to.

Crumb’s brothers Charles and Maxon play a large role, and the brotherly dynamic between the three is presented as a formative influence on Crumb’s art. In the bits of childhood artwork we see, Charles is at least as good as Robert, and already stranger. At the time of the filming (he killed himself shortly after), Charles was living with their mother, completely divorced from the outside world, and it’s almost a picture of what Crumb could be imagined to have become had his own art not become so wildly popular and allowed him to enter the outside world without ever really adjusting to it, parts of it instead reshaping around him, as in his museum piggyback ride. We see less of Maxon, but he also seems lost, talking about getting in trouble for molesting women and seeming most at home on his mat of nails (he didn’t have enough wood to make a bed of nails).

All in all, Crumb is an amazing character study of a truly bizarre family and the one member of it who went on to become one of the most influential comics artists of all time. How he became that isn’t really touched on, but what his life was like in the 1990s once he had achieved that is expertly and surreally captured.

Later in the same week, I decided it would make an interesting contrast to watch Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, several copies of which had been floating around the Dark Horse offices after being given away at this year’s Eisner Awards. And the contrast is indeed stark. While Crumb focuses on personality over comics history, Portrait of a Sequential Artist is much more about the comics tradition Eisner arose from and his influence on the comics field. While the majority of commentators in Crumb were art critics, most of Portrait of a Sequential Artist’s are cartoonists (Trina Robbins is the only person interviewed in both films). Portrait of a Sequential Artist is clearly the product of great admiration for Eisner, but it is not particularly personal, and there are no revelations to be had about Eisner’s life or work. It’s a perfectly workmanlike piece of filmmaking, and will no doubt be useful to students of comics history, but it is not itself a work of art as is Crumb. It’s difficult to imagine Portrait of a Sequential Artist gaining an audience outside of the comics world. Which might be fine; as a comics devotee, I found it quite enjoyable, if not uniquely so.

THREE QUICK THOUGHTS ON THREE NYCC ITEMS

NOT A LOT actually jumped out at me from my 3,000-mile vantage on NYCC, but here are three brief items that played to some of my specific obsessions:

As a buyer of comics, I can’t help but be pleased. What I find more interesting, though, is something I’ve been wondering for a while in light of all the online discussion of pricing: do many regular comics shoppers pay full cover price or close to it? I’m in a fairly privileged position right now, in that the price increase from $2.99 to $3.99 was largely counteracted by the employee discount I get for working at DH changed from 20% to 33% at roughly the same time (meaning my cost per comic only went up $0.28). However, I’ve often gotten discounts between 15% and 25% for maintaining a pull list at different stores, and I assume this to be the case with most fans who follow comics closely enough to comment frequently on the Internet, but I feel like I don’t hear it mentioned often (incidentally, long before I followed the business side of comics, the first time that the policies of a major publisher affected my budget was when my local store dropped its discount from 25% to 20% thanks to Marvel’s Heroes World self-distribution debacle). When commentators do the math, it always seems to use $3 and $4 as the only numbers in play. The average cover price of comics is well covered, but I’m curious what the average price-per-comic a reader with a pull list actually pays.

On a related note, I’m sure Marvel was probably planning their announcement before hearing DC’s (how could approval for reducing prices on several titles be received within an hour?), but it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to learn otherwise after their performance in the wake of DC being the first company to announce a digital royalties program: “We had one first! We just didn’t tell anyone. Including the talent receiving the royalties.” [Ed. note: whether Marvel’s announcement was a reaction to DC’s or not, the recent release of January solicitations makes one thing about it clear: it was not true.]

Does this mean Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca have to give back their Best New Series Eisners?

Bendis is a consummate pitchman and given to hyperbole, so I’ll wait until its released to see if it really turns on concepts no one has ever thought of before (Bendis is currently making the same claim about the upcoming year of Ultimate Spider-Man), but his style of dialogue and Oeming’s art style seem ideal for a kids’ book, and I like the idea of Marvel trying some kids’ superhero comics not based on existing characters. I’m looking forward to this.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Action Comics #893 by Paul Cornell, Sean Chen & Wayne Faucher and Nick Spencer & R.B. Silva
  • The Authority: The Lost Year #12 by (Grant Morrison,) Keith Giffen, Jerry Ordway & Kevin Nowlan
    So this series was pretty much a train wreck, which disappoints me to say, as I like Keith Giffen (I’m currently enjoying Doom Patrol, where Giffen is having better luck reconfiguring Morrison concepts). I bought the first Giffen issue, but have picked the rest out of the DC comps that a few higher-ups at Dark Horse receive and are kind enough to share, and wouldn’t have continued with the series if I hadn’t been able to do so for free. It’s pretty much a test case in why there’s no point in continuing a creator-centered series without that creator. When the Morrison/Ha Authority relaunch began, it was a big deal, and when it collapsed that was unfortunate. Wildstorm’s subsequent decision to revisit the series later and retrofit it into a “lost year” between the old Authority and the new, post-apocalyptic one is mystifying, and while the storyline, which has seen the Authority adrift in the multiverse, visiting a series of alternate versions of itself, has a vaguely Morrisonian flavor to it, Giffen doesn’t seem to have had either enough information about Morrison’s original plan nor room to go off on his own, and the series has just lain there as a result. This final issue is composed entirely of denouement, with some of the better art the series has seen post-Ha, but there’s not much for Ordway and Nowlan to draw, as the issue is more concerned with explaining the theme of the series than in depicting its fallout, and its necessarily anticlimactic, as we already know what will happen next.
  • Batman Beyond #3 by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci
  • Booster Gold #35 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Chris Batista, Pat Olliffe & Rich Perrotta
  • Fantastic Four vol. 1 HC by Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, Karl Kesel, et al.
    Read this after my recent survey of the last of the Old Marvel Fantastic Four issues, and it is certainly a fresh start. The first issue features an oblique look at the origin and a new P.R. firm (never seen again) for F.F. Inc., in response to the in-story lack of interest in and loss of sales by the company. It’s a clear reference to the state of the franchise itself, and Waid and Wieringo set out to modernize and reinvigorate the series, and it works for the most part. Wieringo shows a great feel for the characters, giving each a unique personality through body language, and he has no trouble drawing a multitude of strange settings and creatures Waid picks up the characters pretty quickly, too, although it takes most of the book for it to look like he’s not trying too hard, and the family stuff never entirely gets away from saccharine. There are plenty of good ideas, like Johnny being made CFO of F.F. Inc, as well as some facile ones like Reed defeating a more occult-powered Doom by admitting he doesn’t understand magic (a variation on “You can’t copy the Justice League’s powers; we just disbanded the Justice League”). All in all, it’s high-energy, light stuff, which was exactly what the franchise needed after the absurdly complex and continuity-heavy run that preceded it, though the result is that ten years on it doesn’t seem as special as it once did.
  • Fantastic Four in… ¡Ataque del M.O.D.O.K.! by Tom Beland & Juan Doe
    I don’t really know why I found this less satisfying than Beland and Doe’s first take on the FF (I somehow missed the second). Doe’s art and coloring have improved, and the stark red flashbacks of the new hero character are a highlight. The story feels a little too comfortable, maybe, Reed and Sue enjoying themselves in Puerto Rico, the appearance by M.O.D.O.K. seemingly an afterthought. It’s also more overtly in Beland’s romance vein than the other issue, with a flashback to Sue and Reed’s early courtship and a new origin for Mr. Fantastic’s name, neither of which I bought. Similarly, Beland’s shout-out to his independent series True Story Swear to God was too cute. Still, with a story that’s light as air and for looking so good, I can’t say the issue was a bad time, and I’ll still be tracking down the middle story that I missed.
  • Love and Rockets New Stories #3 by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez
    What to say that others haven’t? I’m not steeped enough in Jaime’s work to say that his contribution to this volume was his best ever, but it was very, very strong work, and the reveal at the end so surprised me that I immediately reread the story. Gilbert’s main story is a rush and actually pretty funny in a sick way. The “Killer” story was the first in which I realized her relationship to Fritz, though perhaps this is again because of my lack of close reading. I’ve been enjoying the way that Gilbert’s stories and stories-within-stories have interacted, though without being entirely sure why. This volume also led me to wonder to what degree the brothers are aware of what the other is up to, since the stories seemed to strangely reflect each other in ways that previous volumes haven’t. Reading this also made me realize that, while I am caught up on Gilbert’s Love and Rockets vol. II material, I’ve fallen behind on Jaime’s, so look for me to correct that in the next few columns.
  • Neonomicon #2 by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows
    I can honestly say I have no idea what will happen next. Well, I have a pretty good idea of what happens immediately next, but considering there’s still half of the series to go, I have no idea where it’s going. Having read this issue before hearing any Internet buzz, I was pretty surprised by how quickly the situation deteriorates into serious horror and found the sexual violence within much more disturbing than mainstream comics generally accomplishes, for whatever that’s worth.
  • The Purple Smurfs by Yvan Delporte & Peyo
    Basically Blackest Night with smurfs. Notes in the book say this was even originally called “The Black Smurfs,” but was changed in America for fear of sounding racist. The highlight of this collection is the very funny “The Flying Smurf,” with a member of the village deciding that he will create wings to fly with and the problems he causes for everyone else in the process.
  • Scarlet #2 by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev
    Still holding my complete attention, in spite of a few plot points that stretch credulity somewhat, as noted in the letters column. Issue two reveals the series to be the inverse of Warren Ellis’s Reload from a few years back. In that miniseries, a former spy (I think; going from memory) assassinates the President of the United States and goes after several other U.S. leaders, under the theory that the country is being run by organized crime and that someone needs to exterminate those criminals at the top. By contrast, Scarlet takes a bottom-up approach, reacting to street-level injustice and following it up the chain as the titular character learns that the crooked police officer she has targeted is tied to greater corruption. There’s long been a debate as to whether lasting change is instituted by top-down leadership or grassroots movements—this was one of the key ideological disputes between the presidential campaigns of Hilary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008—and Scarlet’s repeated references to something that she has to ask readers to do for her seem to represent some sort of grassroots movement in the making, leading to what Bendis has promised will be a story of a new American Revolution.

    The character is appealing as well, as we don’t yet know a lot about her, but from spending nearly every page with her, we have a good sense of what she is like. Alex Maleev’s portrait of Portland is impressive in its mix of specificity—I recognize most of the locations—with a unique artistic approach setting it apart from either a more idiosyncratic look like Matthew Southworth’s in Stumptown (interesting that there are two recent series making such extensive use of Portland as a location; though considering how much of the comics scene is based here, maybe it’s more surprising that there aren’t more) or a strictly fumetti look. There’s a connection between this depiction and Maleev’s depiction of New York in Daredevil, and while both are heavily photo-referenced, they are also both identifiable as the work of the same artist.

  • Sweet Tooth #14 by Jeff Lemire
  • Tiny Titans #31 by Art Baltazar & Franco
  • Twin Spica vol. 3 by Kou Yaginuma
    I like that Japanese cartoonists have no qualms about mixing sci-fi with magical realism, approaches that seem at odds, but which can heighten each other through their incongruity. This series continues to charm me, and I admire the structure of each volume, balancing the continuation of the ongoing story with a few short backup stories that fill in characters’ pasts.
  • Weird War Tales by Darwyn Cooke, Ivan Brandon, Nic Klein, Jan Strnad, Gabriel Hardman & Steve Pugh
    Cooke’s story, in which dead soldiers from all across history gather periodically to reminisce and reenact war games, glories in war as noble, heroic and fun a bit too much for my taste, but its such an absurd notion that serious moral concerns roll right off it. It’s also great to look at, and the only story in the anthology that is genuinely weird or memorable. Steve Pugh’s contribution is sadly limited to a single pinup, though as a darker complement to Cooke’s story, it’s a haunting piece.

Images of Criterion Edition of Crumb © Criterion Collection. Images of Iron Man © Marvel Characters, Inc. Images of Takio © Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming. Images of Twin Spica © Kou Yaginuma

Trash and the Littlest Curmudgeon – My Week in Comics September 26–October 2

October 4, 2010

This week: If TV and movies are embracing superheroes, maybe comics can let them go; whatever happened to “guilty pleasures”; and what I read.


SUPERHEROES DON’T NEED COMICS ANYMORE

NBC’s Heroes isn’t coming back, and CW’s Smallville is in its final season, but superheroes are nonetheless becoming a primetime staple, as ABC is keeping the genre going with its new family superhero drama No Ordinary Family, which debuted Tuesday. I had no particular interest in the series, but I’m trying to live in the future like everyone else, so when iTunes offered several of this season’s pilots as free downloads, it seemed like the most appealing option to experiment with watching shows on my iPod Touch. I gave it a shot on the bus today, holding the iPod sideways and staring into my lap instead of reading on my way to and from work (as it turns out, my roundtrip commute is exactly the length of an hourlong network show, minus commercials).

While watching, I couldn’t help thinking about all the different media that superheroes show up in these days and wondering if the old argument that the genre dominates comics because comics does superheroes better than any other media could finally be put to rest. Which is not to say that No Ordinary Family is better than any superhero comic out there—it’s not—but what I saw when I watched the show made it clear that there’s no longer any reason why television can’t do superheroes as well or better than comics does.

The primary reason that comics have been touted as the ideal medium for superheroes is the “unlimited special effects budget” available to comics, but computer effects have reached the point where an unlimited budget is no longer necessary to create credible superhero action. The level of digital effects now available to network television shows easily matches that of midbudget movies of ten years ago, while the fact that superheroes have made it to network primetime means that the budgets available to the shows is higher than ever before. It doesn’t hurt that the trend even within superhero comics has been away from brightly colored costumes and toward a more lo-fi, “realistic” depiction of superheroics, which is much more camera-friendly.

And that’s just television. In movies, superhero blockbusters are a familiar part of the summer schedule—next year will see The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger hit theaters—and I suspect that superheroes will become a bigger and bigger presence in videogames, which may prove to be the true ideal home of the genre. After all, the second most popular iteration of Batman after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is Rocksteady Studios’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Even in my limited videogame-playing experience, webslinging in the Spider-Man games I’ve tried out has been more fun than all but a handful of Spider-Man comics.

I certainly don’t expect the superhero genre to loosen its death grip on comics anytime soon, and I doubt that this development will help that happen much faster, but it is one less argument for the legitimacy of that death grip, and that’s good news as far as I’m concerned. No doubt, the recent success of superheroes in movies, TV and videogames have proven that the public at large has a taste for the genre, but it’s just as clear from the reporting of potential superhero overexposure that a general audience prefers it understand its place as one genre among many.

As for the quality of No Ordinary Family itself, it’s always hard to say from a pilot. In my experience, very few pilots truly represent the flavor of a show, and not many are much good on their own. The last pilot I remember that on subsequent viewings felt like just another episode of the series was The West Wing, and that was over ten years ago. Still, some elements of No Ordinary Family and the ways that it differs from a comic book treatment of superheroes are apparent right away. Certainly there are comic book connections, such as Mark Guggenheim’s role as producer, and nods to comics, like the presence of “the Simonson Building,” but the structure and characterization owe considerably more to television conventions.

The show opens with Jim Powell (Michael Chiklis, best known for starring in The Shield, but with a comics connection courtesy of the Fantastic Four movies, in which he played the Thing) speaking directly to the camera, his wife Stephanie (Julie Benz) soon joining in the narration. At episode’s end it is revealed that they are speaking to a therapist, a common framing device. Their two performances are strong, but the cast doesn’t feel like a family yet.

The pilot is largely given over to the plane crash which gives them their powers and their subsequent discovery of their various abilities. The show is presented as a family drama, but the point-of-view character is clearly Jim, as we spend most of the episode with him, and he is the one who has a real problem, feeling stuck in a rut and unable to connect with Stephanie, who is an incredibly busy scientist of some kind. We’re told in dialogue a few times that Stephanie also feels pressure, with a life too full and not enough time for her family, but she seems happy when we actually see her at work and doesn’t give any real indication of dissatisfaction. Jim, meanwhile, plays homemaker and apparently keeps his own schedule as a not-very-busy police sketch artist. It’s his quiet desperation that our attention is drawn to.

Once everyone gets their powers, it’s a reminder that, while superhero comics may not be the most progressive outlet for gender politics, they still have it over mainstream TV, which generally shows little more imagination that to reinforce prevailing societal roles, in this case the traditional nuclear family. Each character’s powers are gendered along stereotypical lines: Jim’s strength and toughness allow him to be a better protector, while Stephanie’s speed allows her to balance her career with the homemaking role that Jim previously filled. Meanwhile, their son JJ (Jimmy Bennet) develops cognitive abilities that make him good at math, and their daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) discovers that she can read minds, making her aware of the feelings of those around her. Again, this being a pilot, there’s no way of knowing if the writers will eventually play these characters against type, but on the basis of this episode, it’s painfully paint-by-numbers.

Jim’s DA buddy George (Romany Malco) and Stephanie’s lab tech Katie (Autumn Reeser), have a bit more potential. They haven’t been given much yet, but as the regular people that Jim and Stephanie confide in and who play sidekick to different extents, they help keep the whole thing from getting too serious, and Katie has the funniest line of the episode in her introductory scene. The introduction of a powered villain in the first episode is a mixed bag, since it opens up the world beyond the main characters, but the mystery established in the last scene could easily hamper the series’ growth. Overall, the pilot is not a disaster, but it will need to be much more surprising and much less conventional to have any chance of being more than an interchangeable family soap with a gimmick.

WHITHER GUILTY PLEASURES?

SPEAKING OF TRASHY ENTERTAINMENT, reading this defense of M.O.D.O.K. and general comics whimsy on npr.org, I was reminded of something I’ve noticed in recent years. Kudos to NPR for praising silliness, because while this is purely anecdotal, and therefore likely wrong, I feel like I don’t see things described as “guilty pleasures” often anymore. There instead seems to be a movement to claim that whatever one likes is high-minded. I often think of myself as a fan of trash, but others react poorly when I refer to things we both enjoy or that they enjoy as “trash,” and I get blank stares when I try to draw a distinction between trash (material that is not high-minded, whether it is enjoyable or not and whether it is well-crafted or not) and crap (material that is unenjoyable and poorly crafted, whether it is high-minded or not).

To return to TV for an example, my TV-viewing leans toward trashy—while I think of Mad Men and Friday Nights Lights as semi-high-minded, I make no such claims about House M.D., Castle or Glee, all of which I watch for their trashiness to varying degrees. So it’s alarming to hear things like “No, Battlestar Galactica is a profound meditation on religious difference and the security state,” because the words “Battlestar Galactica” and “profound” in the same sentence are always a mistake.

It might be that those particular high-minded claims are mostly evident elsewhere, since comics is known for its inferiority complex, but certainly the impulse to take material seriously without the commensurate seriousness of subject matter is common in mainstream comics. So much of what readers and commentators complain about in mainstream comics—the “extreme” violence, sexual themes and drawn-out, overly complex stories—are symptoms of a genre that takes itself too seriously, that has come to think of itself as high-minded in a way that is at odds with its conventions. With very few exceptions, superhero comics are trash, and thank goodness for it. Trying for something else can produce work like Watchmen, but I would argue that it can’t do it very many times, since you can’t base a genre on the act of defying its own conventions. Most of the time, you just get “serious” stories that inevitably become laughable since they are inhabited by people in brightly colored, formfitting costumes. It happened because a certain subset of comics readers chose not to change their reading habits as they grew up, but instead demanded that the work they were already reading change with them, going to places it was less than ideally suited for.

And then series that are trash (though not crap) clean up at comics award ceremonies, because it might make people feel bad if the stuff that they read isn’t up to Eisner and Harvey award-winning quality. But do they really have to be award winners, do we really have to defend them as serious? Isn’t it good enough to say, “It’s trash, but I like it?” Isn’t it enough that it sells a lot? Slate’s Dana Stevens put it well in her review of The Social Network, which she praised for genuinely having something to say, “I know I sometimes feel like cc:’ing a memo to all the Hollywood studio heads: Please stop throwing flaming robot cars at me, then asking for an Oscar.” I feel the same—Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time (unless you adjust for inflation, of course, in which case it’s Gone With the Wind); why was it also necessary that it be in serious contention for Best Picture? Similarly, just to look at this year’s winner, while it is well crafted, must we pretend that The Walking Dead, a zombie comic, is really the best comics had to offer in 2010?

I don’t know what leads people to proclaim trash to be transcendent. Entertaining people is itself an accomplishment, and a significant one. There are times when I will pick entertainment over enlightenment—just look at this week’s “What I Read” section—but I strongly believe in recognizing when one has done so.

(So, yeah, getting closer each week to just admitting this blog should be called “The Littlest Curmudgeon.”)

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Baltimore: The Plague Ships #1 by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden & Ben Stenbeck
  • Gen13: Superhuman Like You by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Kaare Andrews et al.
    Gen13: Meanwhile by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Yanick Paquette, Rick Mays, Lee Bermejo et al.
    Gen13 #71–#77 by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Rick Mays et al.

    I didn’t grow up with Wildstorm, and I don’t have the nostalgia for it that several commentators have expressed since the announcement of its closure, but I was moved to revisit one Widstorm run that I remember having affection for. Adam Warren’s time on Gen13 is pretty much how I remember it, a not terribly deep but surprisingly sweet year and a half spent with a believable bunch of kids who are almost incidentally superhumans (hell, the first collection is called Superhuman Like You). The Wildstorm universe came to an interesting point in the early aughts, in which, at least based on this series and Joe Casey’s WildC.A.T.S., a lot of the original storylines established for the various series had come to an end and the characters of each found themselves in a kind of limbo. In WildC.A.T.S. the alien invasion they were fighting against had been successfully prevented and the team didn’t know what to do with themselves; here the government organization that had been controlling the main characters is no more and they’re trying to live normal lives.

    Warren writes the team convincingly on the verge of adulthood, starting for the first time to have to take care of themselves without some obvious goal except that which they devise for themselves. So far, though, that has meant splitting time between relaxing in their newly restored La Jolla home and partying. It’s impressive how many of the stories in this run have no serious supervillain. When villains do appear, Gen13 are rarely the actual target, as at different times members of the team are used by parties they have nothing to do with as weapons against third parties they barely know.

    As a whole, it’s charming and sexy, but I can see why it may not have connected at the time, a low-key story of characters coming into their own rather than an explosive superhero punch-up. The good-girl-style art of Ed Benes is a perfect fit, and is considerably more enjoyable than his recent DC art, which tends to be over-rendered and lacking in the differentiation between characters that he seems to have no trouble with here. His work on Gen13 is expressive and funny, with nice character work. Yanick Paquette’s smooth line and Rick Mays’s more manga-inspired work also both complement the material perfectly.

    I had remembered the series ending with the death of the team, but there are actually three issues of denouement. #77 follows some supporting characters on a last mission with a nice revelation, but it’s #75–#76 that are the real goodbye to the characters. Two issues worth of hanging out with the team ends in a character moment that was more moving than I was ready for. It’s one of the most emotional send-offs to a bunch of silly superhero characters that I can remember, especially impressive since I have no history with these characters, having only previously read a few Warren Ellis one-offs. It’s too bad it ended when it did, but I’m glad it got to have a moment like this.

  • Legion of Super-Heroes #5 by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Francis Portela & Wayne Faucher
  • Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman
    The most ambitious thing I read this week, and no exception to my experience of Hickman’s creator-owned work being more interesting than his Marvel gigs to date. However, this didn’t connect with me the way that The Nightly News did. The info graphs don’t feel as organic here as they did in a story about media and information, and the more plot-driven concept of Pax Romana is at odds with the presentation. Characters are introduced not through action but through paragraphs explaining who they are, and they don’t really advance beyond what we learn from that text. The ideas are at times exhilarating, but they don’t ever quite resolve into a story. That’s not such a terrible thing, of course; it’s exciting that a greater variety of styles are developing in comics, but this particular book doesn’t find a comfortable balance between information versus story. The plot involves a time-travel mission to ancient Rome to reshape the course of history, and the important thing is not how it ends but the moment when the planners begin to turn on each other. However, Hickman apparently isn’t entirely confident that he’s gotten his point across, as instead of ending it there, he includes several pages charting the next few hundred years. Thematically, his story is over once the main characters begin to betray each other, but in terms of plot it isn’t done until it reaches the point depicted in the framing sequence, and he ends up having to include that information, but oddly not as part of the story. It will be instructive to see what effect his current work on the much more plot-driven Marvel comics he is writing will have on his future creator-owned projects.
  • Superman/Batman #76 by Judd Winick, Marco Rudy, Oclair Albert & Julio Ferrera
  • Ultimate Hulk Vs. Ultimate Iron Man: Ultimate Human by Warren Ellis, Cary Nord & Dave Stewart
    Considerably denser than I expected. Quite a lot of this book is taken up with people talking about science, and when the smashing comes it feels earned. I thought this would be a slightly smarter than average punch-’em-up, but it was an engaging story, with very nice visuals courtesy of Nord and Stewart.
  • Ultimate X-Men vols. 9–13 by Brian K. Vaughan, Stuart Immonen, Brandon Peterson, Andy Kubert, Tom Raney & Steve Dillon
    Picked these up at a Things From Another World online sale, each volume costing less than an issue of a new Ultimate comic, and it was definitely worth it for the price. I’d heard great things about this run, and while it wasn’t the sustained story that I expected, each arc was a fast-paced, entertaining yarn. Each volume is a discrete story, but there are soap opera elements that build over the course of the books, and how they come together by vol. 13’s confrontation with Magneto is pretty satisfying. There’s not a lot here, but it’s pretty great action comics.

Images of No Ordinary Family © ABC Studios. Images of The Walking Dead © Robert Kirkman. Images of Gen13 © DC Comics, Inc.

The Kids(’ Comics) Are Alright and The Fantastic Four of Old – My Week in Comics September 19-25

October 1, 2010

This week: More on all-ages and kids’ comics, the most honest assessment of DC’s recent changes on the Internet, what the Fantastic Four looked like in the heady days of 2001, and What I Read.


ALL-AGES FOLLOW-UP

It was a weird process that produced last week’s piece on all-ages comics. I sat down to write about how I wish there were more of them, then started to think about my own reading history and how little it lined up with what I was writing about, then thought about what sold in bookstores and wondered if I was unfairly dismissing it because it wasn’t to my taste. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series sells in the millions, and if people want to think of them as comics, then I am happy to claim them, even though I’ve never read one and don’t really know what they’re like (something I will correct as soon as I can get the first book from the library). I hope comics stores stock Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, because it is so popular that its main character is being added to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a second movie is coming out early next year.

The whole thing made me feel as foolish as the people who complain that superhero comics aren’t aimed at kids anymore because they want their kids to read the same thing they read as kids (ignoring the fact that superhero comics are the way they are because those same readers didn’t want to change their reading habits as they grew up, making the whole argument somewhat hypocritical). Having written 1,500 words at that point, I didn’t want to scrap everything even though I now doubted my initial premise, so I reframed the whole thing in terms of my uncertainty as to what the problem was and if there even was a problem.

Still, it got some play on other sites (who oddly, all excerpted the same paragraph about sales, one of several contradictory points I was trying out over the course of the piece), and I was really pleased that several commenters mentioned Disney Adventures and its spinoff, Comic Zone. I’ve heard Disney Adventures mentioned elsewhere, but never noticed a copy in grocery stores or anywhere else while it was being published. However, it does sound like it was an excellent mix of corporate- and creator-owned material, which clearly kids liked. Landry Walker chimed in to note that Disney Adventures enjoyed something like a 25% sales bump when the phrase “Comic Zone” was added to the cover, which is wonderful. We all want comics stores to do well, but it is tempting to forget that the goal is to attract readers, whether it’s within the Direct Market or out of it and whether it’s through a publisher we think of as being within the industry or some other entity (though as the new corporate parent of Marvel, Disney could now easily be thought of as within the industry).

Monday also saw Skottie Young post about the kid-friendliness of his work, despite it lacking a classification as all-ages material. He also echoes my mention of Spawn as something not aimed primarily at kids that nonetheless appeals to them (or at least did in the ’90s), since kids like more grown-up material than they are generally given credit for. His post is worth a read, and I think he’s mostly right on, though I do think that there is plenty of room for comics aimed at kids in addition to ones that are simply appropriate for them.

Meantime, I’ll be tracking down the collections of Comic Zone, which each look very cool and several of which include work from cartoonists I enjoy.

WHAT DO ALL THESE CHANGES AT DC REALLY MEAN?

I don’t know.

THE LAST DAYS OF OLD MARVEL: A CASE STUDY

  • Fantastic Four Annual 2001 & #46–#49 by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marín, Jeph Loeb, Kevin Maguire et al.

As part of my ongoing efforts to better balance my budget, along with getting more comics from the library I’ve lately been more diligent about reading the unread comics I have lying around instead of buying more. This week I pulled these Fantastic Four issues out of a box, and sitting down with them found myself more interested in their place in Marvel history than in the (convoluted) story itself. These issues were published after Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas became the Editor in Chief and President of Marvel, respectively, but don’t yet show their imprint. Curious about how the transition between #49 and #60 went, and realizing I owned the issues in between, I dug out #50–#59 to reread as well.

By the time the first of these issues came out, the Ultimate Universe had been launched, Grant Morrison was writing New X-Men, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon had finished their Punisher maxi-series and starting an ongoing continuation, J. Michael Straczynski was writing Amazing Spider-Man, and Brian Michael Bendis was just about to take over Daredevil. I had forgotten that Fantastic Four was one of the last of Marvel’s major franchises to get the New Marvel “back to basics” treatment. FF finally got its New Marvel makeover with issue #60, the beginning of Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s run on the series, which also inaugurated the New-Marvel-style taunting of DC, published with a nine-cent cover price a few months after DC released Batman: The 10-cent Adventure.

This then is the beginning of the end of the Old Marvel Fantastic Four, with this arc and the next tying up the loose plot threads and clearing the decks for a fresh start. By contrast with where the title would be a year later, these issues read very ’90s, with Image-influenced art, overdone coloring and lettering effects, and an absurdly complicated story that resolves, somehow, with a giant explosion that reverts everything to normal. Some of these comics have cover credits, some don’t—it was becoming standard at Marvel, but wasn’t quite there yet.

As the story opens, Ben can change into the Thing and back at will, Johnny wears a different uniform to help him control his powers, which he can’t do on his own, and Sue and Reed (or Sue and Doom; I’m not entirely clear) have an adult daughter who dresses like Doom. By issue #60, all of this will be gone. Interestingly, the fans don’t seem to have had time to entirely grasp the New Marvel aesthetic, as one fan letter requests an Ultimate Fantastic Four, the first choice for artist being Rob Liefeld. Pacheco’s art here isn’t unpleasant, though he’s since gotten a lot better, but it is overly busy compared with Kevin Maguire’s work on the Annual that begins the story, and the fill-ins every other issue don’t help.

The story involves a dead Galactus from another reality landing on Earth, and the death of the FF’s reality Galactus leaving Earth open to attack from the being that killed him. A variety of characters from other realities show up and do battle with the FF. Reed’s eventual plan involves finding the three pieces of the location of the Ultimate Nullifier hidden in the Johnny Storms of three other realities, so they can be beamed into their own Johnny’s head and he can return it. Why are the pieces of the location hidden in these other Johnnys? It’s not clear. Why are there three pieces? Because with Johnny on his way to the moon to collect the Nullifier, that leaves three members of the FF to look for them. The plot is on about that level. Which is not to say that there aren’t some pleasures in the strange different worlds the Four find themselves in, but it’s all pretty thin stuff, motivated by the needs of the plot rather than the characters.

As evidenced by the different realities in play, the plot is the kind of continuity mashup that scripter Jeph Loeb currently specializes in, though Loeb isn’t responsible for the plot here. These issues mark the end of Loeb’s tenure scripting over Carlos Pacheco and Rafael Marín’s plots. Loeb famously wrote the book for one dollar, though his role seems to be limited to trying to make sense of the plots and turn the explanation into something approximating dialogue, a feat Karl Kesel would have slightly more success at in the next arc. Loeb’s more recent, nonsensical work for Marvel feels like a bit of a holdover from the pre-Quesada era, and I wonder if some of the habits he now frequently exhibits were learned on this run.

  • Fantastic Four #50 by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marín, Jeph Loeb, Tom Grummet et al.

Issue #50 is the epilogue to Pacheco, Marín and Loeb’s last storyline, but is pretty much wasted, thanks to its timing during the “’Nuff Said” gimmick, a month in which all Marvel comics contained stories without dialogue. Being an anniversary issue, there are also backups, which do have dialogue. They’re all fluff, but some have nice bits. The first is a painfully unfunny update of Lee and Kirby’s “This is a Plot?” from FF Annual #5. The only part of the humor backup I laughed at (a tiny bit) was the page making fun of the letterers, which highlights the early ’00s’ lettering excesses by giving each character a different font, though to be honest it’s not very different from the rest of the issue. I’ve always wondered what Johnny’s flaming word balloons are supposed to sound like. Tom Brevoort, who took over as editor midway through the previous arc, appears as a character, which is notable in that he has gone on to be a major player in New Marvel and was likely a prime mover in FF’s overhaul. The second story is a nice, retro pastiche from Fabian Nicieza and Steve Rude, and the third is a cute but thin story by Udon Studios about Ben and Johnny shopping for Reed and Sue’s anniversary.

  • Fantastic Four #51–#54 by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marín, Karl Kesel & Mark Bagley

These four issues are the actual conclusion of the Old Marvel FF, with Loeb replaced by Karl Kesel, and the interlocking Mike Wieringo covers point to where the series is going. Wieringo already has the characters down, drawing them essentially the same as he will when he takes over the interiors six months later. Like the issues themselves, the interior art of this run straddles the line between New and Old Marvel, as it is provided by Mark Bagley, a longtime Spider-Man artist who was also the debut artist on Ultimate Spider-Man. Bagley pulled double duty for the course of this arc, which began the same month as Ultimate Spider-Man #17, a few months before that series started shipping 18 times a year. The work looks pretty similar to Ultimate Spider-Man, with a similar emphasis on simple page layouts and frequent extreme closeups highlighting the character interaction.

Pacheco and Marín’s story continues a thread from the previous arc and another from an Inhumans miniseries they had written previously. I didn’t read that, but everything pertinent to this story is explained well enough. As for the continuation of this series, we pick up with Sue and Reed’s grown-up daughter gone and Sue is instead pregnant with the same daughter (it’s not worth going into how these things happened, but they mostly make sense). In the last issue, Doctor Doom arrives to deliver the baby and restore Johnny’s control over his powers. In return for saving the baby, he takes the right to name her and chooses Valeria. Their connection will be the most significant holdover from this era to make it into the Waid/Wieringo run. Otherwise, the story is very dense, but manages by the end to have simplified the status quo.

Issue #54 is a “100-Page Monster,” triple-sized anniversary issues containing few ads and many pages of classic reprints at only $1.25 extra. Considering the state of Old Marvel’s trade paperback program, these were probably really welcome. They’re obsolete these days, and the two issues included here, FF Annual #6, featuring the birth of Franklin Richards, and FF #176, have both been reprinted into trades since then, but I don’t know if either were available, at least in color, at the time.

  • Fantastic Four #55–#56 by Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish

The letter column insists that the next five issues aren’t “fill-ins,” but of course they are, keeping the schedule until the next ongoing creative team of Waid and Wieringo take over—not that there’s anything wrong with that. These five issues are my favorites of the ones included here. Kesel is the go-to FF fill-in writer, also writing two issues between the end of the Waid/Wieringo run and the beginning of the Straczynski run. Kesel has a good handle on the characters, and generally builds his stories around their personalities. These two are no exception, the first being a romp in which Ben and Johnny are sent on a wild goose chase to get them out of the Baxter building, and the second a character piece about Ben’s boyhood on Yancy Street. #56 might also be the first issue to make a big deal out of Ben being Jewish, if I remember correctly. The first story is a lot of fun, once one gets over the fact that the plot is instigated by the entire Baxter Building somehow having only one TV, and Immonen brings a lot of energy to Ben and Johnny’s subsequent run-in with the Skrull “Grand Acquisitioner.” Immonen also turns on a dime, bringing a much moodier look to the second story, which is darker and more emotional. If Kesel sometimes hits the psychoanalytical button a little too hard in both stories, his dialogue is still generally looser and more realistic than when he had to explain Pacheco and Marín’s complex plot machinations in the previous arc.

  • Fantastic Four #57–#59 by Adam Warren, Keron Grant & Derek Fridolfs

Man, the Thing has a lot of catchphrases. It’s something you notice when they’re turned into constant background noise, as happens here when they’re repeated ad nauseum by an army of semi-aware Thing clones. Not surprisingly, the Thing is the lead in this story, which is called “The Ever-Loving, Blue-Eyed End of the World,” and it ties up the last of the details of the run that doesn’t mesh with the classic Four, Ben’s ability to change back and forth into the Thing at will. Since it’s written by Adam Warren, this bit of tidying up is done in a very weird, self-aware and amusing way: clones of Ben’s rocky shell attack him because they’re tired of him being able to will his shell into nonexistence, which they find abhorrent, shouting, “Ya know what it’s like to suddenly not exist? And to somehow know that ya don’t exist?”

As befits an Adam Warren story, this one is full of crazy ideas, like a future projection TV that predicts probable futures in the form of a TV news broadcast, which Ben watches as he falls asleep, and which later keeps the story feeling urgent as it announces Ben’s impending death and the destruction his clones will wreak on earth once they defeat him. Along with Keron Grant’s pleasantly off-model, manga-ish artwork, the whole thing feels completely unlike the issues before and after it, but are funny and exciting. The only problems I had were that it’s a little overlong and Sue and Johnny play no role in the proceedings beyond telling each other how serious everything is. Overall, though, like the two issues before it, this story is a great breather between the continuity-heavy Old Marvel approach of the Pacheco/Marín issues and the back-to-basics New Marvel approach, giving a writer and artist with unique sensibilities three issues to go wild.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Almost Silent by Jason
    Of the books collected here, I had only previously read The Living and the Dead, which is okay, but I really loved how silly and funny the gag strips and love stories of the other three books are.

  • Batman: Streets of Gotham #11–#14 by Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen, Derek Fridolfs, Marc Andreykoet al.
    These are perfectly fine Batman comics. While Grant Morrison does his own thing in Batman and Batman and Robin, this seems to be the repository for the long-term soap opera, and there’s a place for that. I’m also looking forward to reading more “House of Hush,” since Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen’s previous “Heart of Hush” from Detective Comics was one of my favorite trashy superhero stories of recent years. I mean, c’mon, Hush has plastic surgery to look just like Bruce Wayne so he can mess with him, plus steals Catwoman’s heart for good measure. It was crazy and hard not to love in how messed up it was.
  • Buffy Season 8: Riley by Jane Espenson & Karl Moline
  • Deadpool Team-Up #899 (from Deadpool Team-Up: Good Buddies) by Fred Van Lente & Dalibor Talajic´ (library)
    Grabbed this from the library just for the Hercules team-up. I doubt I’ll read the rest, because I don’t care. However, this issue was the most I’ve enjoyed a Deadpool comic, as Incredible Hercules co-writer Fred Van Lente comes up with a clever device that actually forces Deadpool to confront himself in an interesting way. Hercules’s inclusion works quite well, and in keeping with the way that Incredible Herc is structured, his motivation and challenge flows organically from mythology.
  • Doom Patrol #13–#14 by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, Ron Randall & John Livesay
    In a weird way, this is mirroring Morrison’s Batman run, bringing in every previous incarnation of Doom Patrol, notably Morrison’s, and fitting it all together. But more importantly, the recap page is in song form, presented by Ambush Bug.
  • Fantastic Four #583 by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting & Paul Mounts
    The current model FF. I’m torn. After a first arc that I really enjoyed, virtually everything else has felt like issue after issue of setup. Now that everything’s in place that may change, but I was surprised how much this issue, the first of the long-hyped “Three” storyline felt like a traditional first issue of an arc, with all the setup that entails. Hasn’t there been enough? I’m going to see “Three” through and decide if I want to keep reading after that. Also, the recap page failed me, as it doesn’t really explain when or why Doom lost his intelligence. Even wikipedia didn’t make it clear to me if it was a part of Dark Reign or a part of Seige. I get that those big events need to have consequences, but it is jarring when following a series like FF and not the big events to learn that something like that has happened to a significant cast member in a completely different series.
  • Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #1–#2 by Howard Chaykin & Michelle Madsen
    Great match of character and artist. Nice, trashy fun. Ostensibly a tie-in to The Rann/Thanagar War, but my knowing nothing about that series didn’t hurt at all. By the way, is this the first story ever to be narrated all the way through by G’Nort?

Images of Gorilla Gorilla © Disney. Images of WildC.A.T.S. and Batman: Streets of Gotham © DC Comics, Inc. Images of Fantastic Four © Marvel Characters, Inc.