Comic Book Galaxy: Pushing Comix Forward About Christopher Allen
Christopher Allen has been writing about comics for over a decade. He got his start at Comic Book Galaxy, where he both contributed reviews and commentary and served as Managing Editor, and has written for The Comics Journal, Kevin Smith's Movie Poop Shoot, NinthArt and PopImage; he was also the Features Editor of Comic Foundry and was one of the judges of the 2006 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. Christopher has two children and lives in San Diego, California, where he writes this blog and other stuff you haven't seen.

If you'd like to submit your comic for review, email Chris.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Gig

For those who may have missed it, I'm currently writing comics reviews and commentary at Trouble With Comics. I'm having a blast.

Aside from that, a lot of work going on.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 019 - Double Jeopardy

Now that I'm back blogging regularly about comics, I seem more compelled to dig into other people's columns and discuss what I see there. I suppose for many the appropriate response would be in the comment section, but I figure I might as well explore my findings here, even at the risk that it might, ironically, seem a little more confrontational to make a new column disputing someone else's, rather than writing a comment post and moving on. My hope is only that these discussions make all of us a little sharper.

I read a couple interesting pieces in the past week, both worth reading but with various issues I wanted to dispute here. Starting with longtime retailer Ilan Strasser's column at ICV2, in which he laments what he sees as Marvel's and DC's failures as the primary reasons for the closing of several other shops in his region, as well as his own struggles to stay afloat. I largely agreed with Alan David Doane's response to the column, which points out that successful retailers such as Brian Hibbs of Comix Experience rely heavily on data from their cycle sheets, as well as the more salient point that a retailer's job is to sell comics, not Marvel and DC comics, and if Marvel and DC aren't selling as well, it's up to the retailer to figure out what he can sell, whether it's stuff he'd like to read or not.

I'm not here to pile on Strasser. In fact, I like some of the thrust of the column. It's just that, well...let's look at his suggestions for a Marvel/DC turnaround:

* Stop the big event with the multi-part crossover storylines.

* Price comics back down to an affordable level based on real costs and not short-term greed -- comics pricing has far exceeded the increase in inflation over the last decade.

* Solicit and publish their books on a timely basis. There is a world of talented writers and artists out there -- use the ones who can deliver product (let's call it what it is) on time and forget the big name, prima donna basis for utilizing talent, and create a system that punishes said talent when it fails to live up to its commitments.

* Stop publishing more than one monthly title of your major characters and don't produce miniseries that aren't exceptionally high in quality. Stop clogging the shelves with shit.

* Work TOGETHER to raise the health of the industry. Stop endlessly fighting to be first. You will always be one or two and within reasonable percentages in terms of volume and dollar sales. Wouldn't a scenario where a publisher isn't always first, but makes exponentially more money overall be better for either publisher?

* Start treating your retail partners like they really matter instead of conduits for your cash flow.

I'll address the last point first. It's a shame, honestly, that Strasser feels this way. In my own day job, I realize that as much as management can talk about how the client is #1 and we have to serve them no matter how demanding or unreasonable they can be, it's pretty tough to do sometimes. Sometimes you do want to throw the towel in, and it sounds like this is one of those days for Strasser. Fair enough. But sympathy aside, the retail partner is just a conduit for your cash flow.

That's what's troubling about the column. If Strasser wasn't a retailer himself, it would seem well-intentioned, even admirable. Let's look at those earlier points. Who doesn't want Marvel and DC to publish on time, to hold the line on prices, and to be all-around nicer and with a higher overall level of quality? All that's missing here is a proposal for a retailer variant cover edition made of chocolate and it's as good as it gets.

But of course, someone is buying all those event books and endless spin-off series that don't meet Strasser's standards. There's not a critic I respect who hasn't dipped into a 52 or Civil War, just like the coolest music fans are still downloading the latest Coldplay cd and playing it alone in the car or while jogging. Overall sales for Marvel and DC may be down (although July is up over last year), but they're still the biggest players in monthly comics. Strasser isn't really justifying his desire to be seen as a partner with these publishers when he's not supporting what those publishers obviously feel is selling (otherwise why are there so many titles and constant event series). And who gets to decide what's good and what's shit? Would it really be good for the industry to have one Spider-Man book, one Batman, etc.? Who should win the lottery to do them? What if the choice of creative team alienates the people who were reading the other fistfuls of Spider-and-Batbooks that were cancelled? Is it good for comics to put talent out on the streets? Should Marvel and DC let trademarked characters slip out of their grasp while waiting for that Strasser-level proposal? Seems like what's good for Strasser isn't so good for dozens if not hundreds of employees and freelancers. If Strasser wants to be the arbiter of quality, he can do it at the retail level, only taking preorders on comics he doesn't think will be good enough or which he thinks he won't be able to sell.

I don't get the "work together" thing, either. I mean, it sounds nice, but should Apple and Microsoft work together? Should Radiohead and Wilco just do an album together so they're not competing for dollars? "Within a point or two" means someone's losing their gig, and if I work for Marvel, I'd rather it be the other guy, you know? Ultimately, I see Strasser's proposal as a series of evasions of responsibility, and with a very unbusinesslike approach to doing business.

The other piece I read was Ng Suat Tong's piece on comics writers and collaboration, a guest feature at Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter that was a good deal more thought-provoking and insightful than Strasser's (and to be fair, with entirely different aims), but also, to my mind, less honest. Whereas Strasser's was a passionate if muddled open letter borne of frustration, Tong seemed to have a couple different bugbears he wanted to hunt and did his best to deforestate the area to make it easier.

Tong begins on fertile ground, citing and echoing cartoonist's James Romberger's sentiments that most critics today favor the comics writer over the artist, with even the New York Times not giving proper due to David Mazzucchelli's mastery of comics storytelling techniques in the review of Asterios Polyp. The review itself seems pretty strong, but Romberger was kind enough to clarify that he was referring to the Arts section piece covering this book, Darwyn Cooke's Parker adaptation, and the Gaiman/Kubert Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, so I've edited a small portion of this post here.

Tong doesn't seem to want to get into the his first thought, about the cult of the comics writer, for a while yet, or maybe he's just going about it with an emperor's new clothes approach:

"When a writer fails to take into account the limitations and talents of his collaborator, what we are left with may be compared with one of those scenes in science fiction movies where dinner guests are presented with food capsules containing the essence of filet mignon (or bull rectum whichever may be the case)."

Leaving the bull rectum aside (and it's tough, unless marinated for several hours), Tong's point is simple enough and hard to dispute. Plenty of writers don't give their artists a lot to work with, and his example of writer Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man script, as illustrated by the bland Pia Guerra, is a decent enough choice, although it seems like slamming Vaughan for not conveying a sense of place in a scene set almost entirely in darkness is kind of stacking the deck, right? And it's from issue #18 of the series, meaning Vaughan and Guerra were halfway through their second year of collaboration. Tong either doesn't take a fairly obvious logical step to conclude that writers and artists develop a sort of shorthand after working together for a while, a comfort zone, and that after over a year, a good deal of the heavy lifting of the world-building had probably been performed by now. He either doesn't acknowledge this or purposely avoids it.

We then get a fine exploration of what Tong rightly points out is a collaboration of equals--the Frank Miller-written/David Mazzuchelli-illustrated Daredevil story, "Born Again." Tong is back on firm footing here because it's obviously a comic he first read and enjoyed rather than read in order to prove a point, as with the modern work discussed here. Again, it seems a little bit unfair to use the Miller script excerpt here, not because Miller has an advantage over Vaughan of also being a comics artist--that's just the way it goes--but because this was a discrete, focused run by Miller for a then-new collaborator. In other words, Miller was going to get into as much detail as he could so that nothing was lost in translation, as he hadn't worked with Mazzucchelli before and wouldn't know his methods. It would have been a fairer exercise if Tong only used scripts from first-ever collaborators as the true measure of writers at the top of their game, rather than using familiarity, and perhaps a desire to better satisfy one's long-term collaborator by giving them more freedom to interpret scenes, against them. Tong does this again later, using an opportunity to throw some old Daredevil artists a bone by giving them a panel each to draw a DD/Kingpin fight, as a lost opportunity to expand the medium.

Tong then looks at the Brian Michael Bendis/Alex Maleev run on Daredevil from a few years ago, recently collected in Marvel Omnibus form:

"Something terrible and quite telling occurs, for example, when Manuel Gutierrez takes over from Alex Maleev in issues #38-39 of Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil run. In essence, Bendis' simplistic script was laid bare for what it was.

It was my rather lackluster (though not completely disappointing) experience reading Bendis' initial run on Daredevil as collected in his Daredevil Omnibus that made me go back and re-read Miller and Mazzucchelli's Born Again to see if nostalgia had been up to its old tricks. (I should note here that the Bendis Daredevil Omnibus, as opposed to all the prior, shorter, hardcover reprintings, is clearly touted as Bendis' achievement by Marvel since you would be hard pressed to find out who actually drew the issues without peeping inside)"

It's hard to defend the poor three issue arc illustrated by the less-able Gutierrez, and certainly Maleev brought a ton of atmosphere to the book, but having also read those issues recently, I think Maleev would have been hard-pressed to do much better with that story, and indeed his style is somewhat ill-equipped for courtroom drama. That's really just my opinion against Tong's, certainly. What's more important is the unfortunate error Tong commits regarding the cover of the Omnibus only showing Bendis' name. In fact this was an error, and to Bendis' and Marvel's credit, they went to the expense of sending replacement covers (that now list Bendis, Maleev and colorist (Matt) Hollinsworth in the same sized font. Coincidentally, I had this cover lying on my messy desk and didn't realize why I had it until Tong's article led to a discussion of this error, and then I finally realized what was different and replaced the cover. I have no doubt this was an honest mistake on Tong's part, but it's too bad it forms a major foundation to his thesis (one of many) on the cult of the writer.

Tong hasn't had enough of Miller/Mazz, so we get more pages and script, and they're great examples not only of the skill and intelligence of the collaborators but of the unique properties of comics, the way panels can be cluttered but still, time bending to the reader's needs. If Tong merely wanted to point out how there aren't many creative teams doing work on this level in 2009, he's right, and could have winnowed his piece accordingly to better effect. Although, let's face it, not many teams were doing Born Again-level work when Born Again came out.

We then get an unfortunate moment of pettiness, as poor Ed Brubaker's Captain America run is dismissed with the gut-punch that it's the "worst of the lot" (among the Bendis/Maleev Daredevil and Vaughan/Guerra Y, and "not worth mentioning" with no details to support why this is, and, ironically, no credit given to Brubaker's artistic collaborators during his run, Steve Epting and Michael Lark). I guess Brubaker has to take one for the team.

We get back to Bendis/Maleev, as one scene is cited for its success at creating tension, but another scene (not shown) is criticized for being too indebted to film. It seems to me that if something works, who cares what influenced it? Is P. Craig Russell too indebted to opera? Film influences are the easiest to recognize because we all watch movies. It's easier to criticize what we already understand, which is probably why there's always going to be more reviews of superheroes and other genre works. What's really odd is there is only one script sample from Bendis here, near the end of the article and it's an excerpt, skipping the first two panels, where one might suspect more description of setting would be found. Also, it again seems Tong stacked the deck for the '80s and '90s lions by using a dull night scene with a guy talking in a phone booth to someone, contrasting with a colorful P. Craig Russell Sandman splash page set in an Egyptian palace, a Cameron Stewart-drawn Seaguy scene with Seaguy hanging out with a floating tuna fish and Death, and an Eddie Campbell-drawn scene set outside an old English church, both scenes accompanied by long, conversational script pages from Gaiman and Moore. Exotic or period settings and strange characters trump dark, grimy modern city streets and pasty white guys every time, though it's curious Tong emphasizes the chatty passages from these three fine writers as being inherently superior to the terse style of Bendis, who of course is more interested in conversational rhythms. I'm not saying either Moore, Morrison or Gaiman aren't superior to Bendis in most if not all ways as writers, but though Tong mentions specific skills for Moore and Morrison, he doesn't find examples on par with the Miller/Mazzucchelli pages. Where's Moore's celebrated gift for narrative structure in this page, or his gift for action sequences?

As one can tell by now, Tong has created an article so broad it's really just an excuse for him to tout creators or creative teams he he likes a lot and pick apart stuff he doesn't, under the Travelers Insurance-sized umbrella of "Writing, Collaboration and Superheroes." And in writing about the ones he likesl, he's insightful. No one's saying the guy's not bright. I would have really enjoyed just these thoughts on things he loves and understands, free of the grasping and desperate need to take down current popular writers.

Eventually, although it started the article, Tong gets around to the cult of the comics writer, or at least how they are promoted today by editors and publicists. He runs out of steam here and relies more on recent book covers to make his point, although yet again I have to call foul on some of the choices. It would seem to me pretty obvious that if one wants to call attention to comics writers getting an undue amount of attention, or "top billing," as it were, over the comics artist with whom they're collaborating, one would choose examples where the writer is only or primarily known as a comics writer. Fair enough to show the emphasis on Alan Moore over his Saga of the Swamp Thing artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben, as Moore is only known outside comics because some of his comics became movies, with no involvement from him. But Neil Gaiman is a best-selling prose writer (and screenwriter), and Coraline started as a Gaiman novella, with Dave McKean spot illustrations rather than sequential art . P. Craig Russell adapted this book into comics form, but one would be hard-pressed to come up with any reason to emphasize Russell's name over Gaiman's, or even at equal size as Gaiman's, in this case. It would be intellectually dishonest, to say nothing of throwing money away. As for Ian Rankin, he's also a best-selling crime novelist, and indeed the cover of this graphic novel--his first--was designed to complement the design of his crime novels. I don't mean to lessen artist Dell'Edera's contribution as artist, but I'm just not sure what the purpose is in tagging sound packaging and marketing decisions as somehow shameful or morally bankrupt. I think Tong should have reeled himself back to the beginning of the article, where the answer was pretty simple: there are fewer star artists right now. Also, what about the '80s, when a John Byrne art job sold as well as a full writing/art job, or a Frank Miller cover sold like a Miller-drawn issue, and the '90s, when the likes of artists Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane parlayed their enormous popularity as artists into increased power by plotting or writing books despite little experience or aptitude? There was a similar hue and cry then--the guys hadn't earned the accolades and writers with whom these guys first became famous, from Chris Claremont to Roger Mackenzie, were shoved aside or marginalized. So now we have the writer prominent. They're the ones who go to story conferences with editors. They generally initiate a project before the artist, and they're generally considered the more essential connective tissue in trying to keep a book selling--rarely will an artist stay these days with new writers coming and going. I'm not saying this is necessarily right, and I do agree with Tong that the artist's contribution to the work isn't given its due. But it seems like this could just be a cyclical thing rather than some new evil, some new incarnation of marketing or editorial gone wild. In superhero comics, despite the crossovers and events, there seems to be a wider variety of writing styles--innovation aside, the voices are more varied now than they were in the '80s and '90s (perhaps significantly, more individual voices in '70s comics like Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber were marginalized or disconnected from high profile books during this time), at the same time as it seems there is a narrower range of art styles in popular superhero comics. Few draw like Alex Maleev, yet that realistic, gritty and yet somewhat static, earthbound style is hardly suited for Avengers or Superman, while there are dozens of fairly similar artists who can slot easily on those books for a time. The decreasing longevity of artists on ongoing series is clearly another factor in the lack of star power they enjoy these days, and there are only a handful who are distinctive enough to draw readers from project to project.

Anyway, I think there's some really good work in here, amid a sprawl of unfocused and at times unfair writing. Tong gets carried away, and who knows, at this time of night, maybe I have, too. It's quite possible that with further refinement and development, he could legitimately earn a lot of the shots he takes here. Even in this rough form, there exist the bases for what could be two or three good, separate pieces.

Christopher Allen
September 8th, 2009

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 018 - Licensed To Kid

I have in front of me a couple quite different books. The similarity is that they both feature alternative cartoonists working for hire on popular characters. And that's about the only place at which they meet.

The Muppet Show Comic Book: Meet The Muppets
Written and Illustrated by Roger Langridge
Published by Boom! Kids. $9.99 USD

Roger Langridge is no stranger to either work-for-hire (Fin Fang Four for Marvel) or creator-owned (Fred the Clown) projects, and was only looking for a place to publish some unused Muppets pages originally intended for Disney Adventures when Boom! approached him about a miniseries, Boom! having just gotten licenses to publish several Disney-related comics. He didn't know it would be quite this popular, nor quite so satisfying.

I came to this collection fresh, having heard the comic was surprisingly good. If Langridge wasn't involved, I probably would have skipped it. Although I liked the show well enough as a kid, even then I thought it was pretty corny and the charm relied so much on the voice talents of Frank Oz and Henson and their puppetry skills rather than the material. So I figured Langridge would have his hands full trying to do something special here.

And, truthfully, the performance aspect is definitely missed, but Langridge makes up for it not only with attractive, on-model artwork, but he actually outdoes the original show's writing by working the familiar sketches like Pigs in Space, Muppet Labs and Veterinarian's Hospital around character-based stories. The four issues collected here (as well as those previously unpublished pages, which are just a bit off from this material but successful enough to warrant inclusion) each focus on one character per issue, with a delicate balance of comedy and poignance. Kermit's homesick for his childhood pond; Fozzie's lost confidence in his stand-up act; Miss Piggy thinks she's going to lose Kermit, and Gonzo...well, that one is played more for laughs and it's probably for the best, as unbroken string of Muppets moping would get old fast.

Langridge brings his love of the trappings of theatre from Fred the Clown to the proceedings here, but he's absolutely reverent to the show's format. The cranky judges, the silly songs, the pantomime, the backstage frenzy to avert disaster, even some thinly disguised celebrity guest stars--they're all there. And while I can't say I laughed out loud much, it's always clever and fun, and reminded me of the affection I still had for these characters.

Strange Tales #1 (of 3)
By Paul Pope, Nick Bertozzi, John Leavitt & Molly Crabapple, Junk Mizuno, Dash Shaw, James Kochalka, Johnny Ryan, Michael Kupperman, Peter Bagge, The Perry Bible Fellowship and Jason.
Published by Marvel Comics. $4.99 USD

The remit for this project was quite different than The Muppet Show or other licensed properties; essentially Marvel asked the cream of the altcomix crop (and one manga creator) to have fun with their characters and be irreverent and indie and whatever wasn't typically Marvel. But it's like your boss inviting you and other coworkers out for drinks, to be one of the guys. Sure, it's nice that the boss is paying, but it's not like you can really open up completely. In other words, these sorts of things are, if not doomed, at least resigned to the fact that it's almost never going to be the best work of the creators involved.

That said, with some exceptions, and an admittedly slight feeling to most of the work, this issue works better than one might have expected. The longest and best story, and probably one of the main reasons this project exists, is Bagge's "The Incorrigible Hulk," which was intended years ago as a follow-up to his popular one-shot "The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man." No one was maimed by that silly special, and yet Marvel got cold feet about the Hulk special until now. Probably wisely, it's broken up across all three issues, but just getting five pages here, it's clear Bagge has an actual story to tell, crossing a possible nerd scientist romance for Bruce Banner with the Hulk befuddled by a take charge danger girl not too different from Bagge's Lisa character from his old Hate series. Apart from a color palette that relies too heavily on pastels for some reason, this is a real winner.

Jason's Spider-Man story is a hoot--Peter thinks he won't be a real man until he gets in a bar fight, so he contrives to make one happen with Doctor Octopus. It's silly and yet right in character for the superhero so unable to cast off his scapegoat skin he's friends with his old high school bully. Bertozzi contributes an odd one about MODOK's long-lasting but ill-fated love with a female AIM agent. That and the one-page Watcher intro both use the comedic premise of inhuman characters having human sexual urges, but the Watcher one is easy laffs while the MODOK one gets a little sad and affecting by the end. Pope's Inhumans story is also well-done--he's got too much imagination to restrict himself to one superhero, so the Inhumans are an inspired choice, and he comes up with a structurally solid trifle about a hungry Lockjaw continually interrupted with supervillain antics just when he's about to tuck into dinner. It also reminded me just how good Kirby was at designing memorable headgear.

The rest of the pieces here were less equal pairings of story and art, but all still successful. Shaw's Dr. Strange vs. Nightmare story gets by on its intensely naive visuals, not unlike the appeal of current cult series Cold Heat. Kochalka's Hulk story is as cute as one would hope--who wouldn't like to see Hulk with a nosebleed? The Mizuno Spider-Man/Mary Jane story is also about the weirdly sweet art, with spider-children like slightly perverted and much cooler Powerpuff Girls. The Leavitt/Crabapple She-Hulk wedding story seemed more of an excuse to play in Jane Austen territory, the hulking out only used as a pat and not terribly amusing ending. The Perry Bible Fellowship (Nicolas Gurewich) gets off two nice gags in two pages, while Ryan outdoes him with eight, most of which are extremely childish (Aunt May buys porno, Galactus has a booger on his nose) but absolutely restrained compared to most of Ryan's work. This is probably as close as he can get to all-ages. He also provides one of the lamer efforts, a two-pager with the Punisher scaring a punk kid into doing his homework. Kupperman has a ball with his piece, plopping a crisp, on-model '60s Sub-Mariner on top of murky, multimedia panels of scenes out of the Great Depression. Namor stands alone, seemingly unobserved, sneering at mankind like an unrepentant Ghost of Civilizations Past. Kupperman takes one of the least likeable of Marvel's superheroes to a logical conclusion. Somehow, although there is arguably better work here, this one got under my skin. "A dog, a barrel...ridiculous!" Indeed.

Christopher Allen
September 7th, 2009

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 017 - Bah Humbug

"The Beatles were overrated. The Rolling Stones, too."

--Keith Richard

By Harvey Kurtzman, Al Jaffee, Jack Davis,Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Russ Heath, Larry Siegel and R.O. Blechman
Published by Fantagraphics Books. $60.00 USD

I just looked it up and see this slipcased, two-volume collection came out a little over a year ago. I bought it back then, and it's just now I'm giving up on it and moving on with my life.

Comic critics may have it pretty good now, as comics and graphic novels are getting a bit more respect, and there are more good ones these days, but for a long time we have been expected to worship a lot of old comics and famous creators that just don't hold up that well. Jack Kirby didn't end on a high note. Many of Will Eisner's graphic novels are not only not really graphic novels but they're trite and vaudevillian. We've lived long enough that Frank Miller embarrasses Jim Lee with his effort.

I was really excited to buy Humbug. I liked Kurtzman's work on Mad as a kid, in reprints, as well as more recent readings of his stories in Two-Fisted Tales. Add other Mad talents like Al Jaffee (I had just about every Signet paperback of his in the '80s), Will Elder, Jack Davis, as well as Arnold Roth and Russ Heath, as well as what I knew of the magazine being funded by Hugh Hefner and allowing Kurtzman & Co a great deal of creative freedom and a healthy budget, and I figured this lush package couldn't go wrong.

And it is a beautiful object, the way the spines of both volumes fit together to spell Humbug, the amusing caricatures on the slipcase, the new covers from Jaffee and Ross. I greatly enjoyed Gary Groth's interview with Roth and Jaffee. Because of the countless laughs he's given me, I have a real fondness for Jaffee and was pleased to see him treated with such respect and kindness, especially as he's an artist who doesn't get mentioned a lot in the comics world these days, and yet his cover indicates he's still got his skill.

The problem with the collection is that it's not $60 worth of funny. It's not very funny at all. As an historical object, sure, great. I think it should be in print. Kurtzman was a very important figure in comics, and the art and design of the pieces here are of an exceedingly high quality. I'm glad I can see more examples of Jaffee's, Elder's and Davis' work. But humor is not only a subjective thing, it can also be a very timely thing. In these pieces, written in large part by Kurtzman with Jaffee and Roth usually writing their own pieces, it's not enough that you remember singer Perry Como--you have to remember when he was young and known as a slouchy mumbler, an affront to the more polished type of crooner like Bing Crosby. Although it's admirable that the creators spoofed not only movies, TV and advertisements but other magazines, parenting books, and really, just about anything that was happening in the late '50s, in too many cases these subjects are mined for superficial comedy rather than any real need for satire. The supposed invincibility of boxer Floyd Patterson gets a page of very thin satire. O'Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" is retold with the only real joke being that for some reason characters from Guys & Dolls show up. There's a feeling that the goal here is to put a funny spin on everything going on in the world at that time, which may be why a lot of this falls flat or doesn't translate well. Some of the most successful of the Kurtzman era Mad pieces were either timeless gags or at least spoofs of things that had already showed some staying power and iconic value, like "Superduperman" or "Starchie." It's not that To Tell the Truth wasn't established enough for Kurtzman to conceivably get some big laughs for generations to come, but that he doesn't turn in a very good script, relying too much on goofy names like "Latismus Halflex" that no amount of Will Elder background overkill can save. The focus in these parodies s almost always on the surface details--the style and character traits, rather than the human comedy. Kurtzman's understanding of man's folly, as shown so well in work like Two-Fisted Tales, is largely absent here, in favor of slight concepts like setting then-familiar television programs in the Old West. There's also an unwelcome returning feature where cliched movie formulas are trotted out that are still pretty accurate today, just not that amusing. It's not all dire: "Flyashi Gordonovitch" has some funny meta jokes (Dr. Zarkov "defected" to this Russian comic strip from "Flash Gordon" because Flyashi has a better personality--he's drawn better), but the ratio of yuks to boredom or grim nods is low. It's a pretty exhausting experience, like taking a history test while your grandfather tells you jokes.

Christopher Allen
September 6th, 2009

Friday, September 04, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 016 - You're Not The Only Flame In Town

Looks like Marvel Editor Tom Brevoort is getting some attention for some comments on his "Blah Blah Blog" at Marvel.com. Oddly, although the comments are fairly short, I haven't seen anyone fail to edit, interpret or highlight portions of them for their own readers. Here's the question asked of him, followed by his full response:

Why do booked (sic) with international lead characters seem to struggle in the US market, like Captain Britain & MI:13 and Alpha Flight? yes, i know that Wolverine's Canadian, but APART from him.

I don't know that it's any one thing, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that it's all part of the same phenomenon that makes it more difficult to sell series with female leads, or African-American leads, or leads of any other particular cultural bent. Because we're an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males. So while within that demographic you'll find people who are interested in a wide assortment of characters of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, whenever your leads are white American males, you've got a better chance of reaching more people overall. That's something that continues to change as the audience for what we do gets larger and more diverse-but even within that diversity, it's probably going to be easier to make a success of a book with a female or African-American lead before it is a British or Canadian-centric character.

Sean T. Collins chose not to use the last sentence, which at least adds a more hopeful, less complacent conclusion to the rest of the comments. Graeme McMillan cuts things off at the same point, and feels he's got enough juice in this nugget to title his piece, "Are American Comics Institutionally Racist?", although at least he gets a reasonable quote from writer Mark Waid before a wishy-washy conclusion where he posits that maybe Disney will help their new purchase, Marvel, have more non-white, non-male leads, but then again, maybe Disney is racist, too, soo...?

David Brothers of 4thletter! has no issue with Brevoort's comments, on the other hand, and says that comics readers get what they deserve, meaning if they continue to support event books and titles with decades of continuity, the characters in those books are generally white, American males.

It's funny, but when I first read the edited comments, I though Brevoort was coming off pretty wacky myself, because of the way Collins and others cut off the comments. Intentional or not, it makes Brevoort look like he's fine with the white, American male lead status quo and not interested in changing, but I feel a little differently after reading the whole thing. I don't know if he or anyone has any research to support that Marvel's audience is getting larger (I'm talking about the audience rather than Marvel sales being up this month over the same period last year) or more diverse, but it's only fair to reflect that Brevoort feels that way. I agree with Brothers that it comes down to the audience. Both Marvel and DC have published lots of female and/or minority characters in their own books. Some died off because their initial hook was tied into a fad or past era like Luke Cage, Power Man (blaxploitation) or Master of Kung Fu (fuploitation), while some just never catch on despite the talent involved or timelessness of the theme, like Power Girl (titsploitation).

Sorry, where was I? Anyway, Marvel and DC have to publish these characters in order to continue to hold the rights to them. Obviously they are interested in publishing versions of these characters that sell, but aside from the occasional newsworthy book like Captain America: The Truth, which featured an African-American version of the title character, what books would you really get behind and promote if you were at Marvel or DC, given years and years of lackluster sales for most of them. Spawn was a huge book for Image Comics for a long time, with an African-American lead. Does he not count just because he was decayed/disfigured so as not to resemble any particular race? Someone mentioned Sandman, who was sort of white but also looked different to different races. But let's get back to Brevoort, as the original question was actually about international characters, and it was only Brevoort that led things away from nationality into race. As far as American comics publishing goes, I think he's right. While DC has the Vertigo line where they can do work set in other countries and dimensions away from their superhero universe, Marvel really doesn't. Their other universe is also filled with superheroes and we mostly see the American side of it. I don't think there's anything stopping Marvel from having their own John Constantine running around other than the practical concern that characters set in other countries have less opportunity to interact with existing, better-selling American superheroes. The few times attempts at a more international cast or settings have worked have been spin-offs from other popular books, like Excalibur coming out of the X-books and Justice League Europe coming out of Justice League, plus in those cases you had very hot writers and artists involved. Why does a Captain Britain or, say, the most recent incarnation of Manhunter struggle and die? Well, was there ever a lot of people who liked the earlier takes on those characters? I don't want to put this all on the readers. For one thing, when a publisher throws out so many titles, as Marvel and DC do, it's all too easy for something new and different to get lost, or for potential consumers to be overwhelmed and choose the books that seem most like stuff they used to like (again, the white, male, American leads). And while I have seen that at least DC sometimes prices the first collections of more offbeat series at a loss leader price, I don't really see either them or Marvel go out of their way to spotlight books that are clearly more likely to have an uphill struggle finding an audience. I mean, I totally understand that you put your best efforts after stuff you know will sell because it's sold before, but I don't see even low-cost initiatives to bring more attention to those tougher sells. That's where I would go after Brevoort, much moreso than what seems a pretty pragmatic, if depressing, statement about the typical American comics reader. A lot of that seems a byproduct of the direct market. Get the cool books and characters exposed outside the nerdy LCS and maybe you can have some successes that lead to more and more diversification.

Boy all this talk about white, American male leads in Marvel Comics just makes me want to review a comic about one. Whaddyasay?

The Torch #1 (of 8)
Story by Alex Ross & Mike Carey
Script by Mike Carey
Art by Patrick Berkenkotter
Published by Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

This is one of those Marvels apparently subcontracted to Dynamite. I hadn't read any and like most people still drawing breath, not a big fan of the original Human Torch. Nor have I been all that interested in Ross' work for years, although I generally still enjoy his covers. But someone must have done something right, because I picked it up anyway.

Things start the way a lot of comics start that star obscure or unpopular old characters--they mope and wonder why they're here, rather than get meta and enjoy that someone is writing a book about them again--woohoo! Rather than the original Torch, this story is about his former sidekick, Tom (Toro) Raymond, who had a mutant ability to turn to fire and fly, rather than it being a side effect of being made of phosphorus or whatever explained the powers of the Torch. Torch was destroyed, and now Tom is questioning his existence with the original Vision, who I think in the Golden Age was more violent but here is just like a wrongly colored version of the later Vision of the Avengers, floating and coldly dispensing wisdom. He also dispenses some teasing hints about the future, which is a perfectly fine way to end a scene.

The (Mad) Thinker, who originally killed Tom before Bucky Barnes brought him back to life with the Cosmic Cube in a '70s Avengers story, is recruited to work on some dastardly project, and Carey writes him enjoyably, if little different than most arrogant evil geniuses aside from his taste for fresh coffee and bourbon biscuits. Then we see Tom again, hanging his head low in every panel until you're about sick of him. Berkenkotter draws a very quaint scene of The Thinker working in the lab, with his little test tube and Bunsen burner. We're so used to huge arrays of computers and Kirbytech that I kind of liked it. Not crazy about some of the other pages, which lack detail and backgrounds, but there's some vitality in his style and his Thinker is suitably greasy and nuts. Carlos Lopez maybe needs to settle in on the coloring duties--faces have sort of a varnish look and it's not a good idea to blur backgrounds to accentuate the main character when he's already sort of indistinct due to being on fire. While I didn't really see anything exceptional here, it's enjoyable, and perhaps moreso in that it seems one won't have to read other comics to understand it.

Christopher Allen
September 5th, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 015 - The Starr Report

Another Wednesday at the comics shop. I have to admit I'm enjoying the routine again after so long away from it. The only issue right now with me is figuring out what I want to buy as a floppy and what I'm likely to want as a collection, and can I wait for it? Also, I'm less apt to buy trades and hardcovers in my shop because I can get them cheaper with an online retailer. That's also true for floppies but I'm willing to pay a little extra for the immediacy. Plus, after thinking about it, a lot of comics aren't things I really need in a trade or hardcover format. For storage, it's great to have the uniformity of the floppies in a longbox rather than another box of different sized trades and hardcovers, and it's not like I'm likely to display collections of the comics below on my bookshelves once they're all done.

Starr The Slayer #1 (of 4)
Written by Daniel Way
Art by Richard Corben
Colors by Jose Villarrubia
Published by MAX Comics/Marvel. $3.99 USD

In my 30+ years of reading comics, many of them Marvels, I've never read any Starr the Slayer. Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith created him in a '70s Marvel anthology and I think they moved on fairly quickly. Warren Ellis used him in his newuniversal, which I also haven't read. So I'm pretty open to whatever Way and Corben had in mind.

Way keeps the idea that author Len Carson created Starr as a fictional character, but that Starr really does exist in another world, on a planet called Zardath. The manner in which Way sets things up is both amusing and disappointing--it's narrated in rhyme, which is fun, but it makes the Starr stuff that much more fictional--if we're not even pretending he's real, why care? I suppose, as with the first incarnation of Starr, we'll learn this is real at some point in this series. The other odd thing is the meta aspect of Carson pitching a Starr story just because he's down on his luck and needing dough, and then he suffers from writer's block trying to get the story started. It's difficult not to read into this and think Way was maybe approached to revive the character and he's less than inspired, or maybe Way pitched something he hadn't thought all the way through and was now struggling to come up with four issues' worth of story. Not really fair for me to speculate, but I'm being honest that these were things I was thinking while reading the comic, fair or not.

There's some fun to be had. I'm not a huge Corben fan but he's certainly a good choice to depict the violent, sexy denizens of an alien world. There's something so weird about Starr next to his sister and uncle and they're all naked and with the same '80s hair band 'do. It's also funny that Starr escapes execution largely on his looks. I find the storytelling amusing and disturbing (the faces and textures mostly) but also unsatisfying as far as providing a thrill during scenes of violence. Corben often uses tall, narrow panels, even during fight scenes, which makes them cramped and almost more comedic than exciting, and then he may go widescreen for some more action but in such a way that there's too much dead space. He seems most engaged when he's depicting strange faces, gritty surface textures, or any time he can inject some eroticism (which could be in the strange faces, the textures, the languorous poses, tits, or ass). Even the gory violence seems related to sex. I don't know if I've ever read a comic where I felt Corben and the writer were totally on the same page, but even though I'm not sure Way and Corben are heading in the same direction, I'm curious to see where each ends up.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 014 - Angel of Death

I don't have much to say about Disney's purchase of Marvel Entertainment except that I hope it works out. I echo Marv Wolfman's statement that nobody knows what will happen. I thought Rich Johnston's "Ten Questions Marvel and Disney Have to Answer" was interesting as far as it goes, but despite what Marvel readers are concerned about, Disney may have a far different "To Do" list. For instance, Marvelman is probably not really all that important in the grand scheme of things. A doll of the ugly little rat-faced kid who runs the snack shack on Hannah Montana is going to generate more revenue than Neil Gaiman. The only thing I know from working in the corporate world is that it's quite likely there will be some changes in Marvel publishing within the next quarter or two. You don't get to be a high level executive without being a control freak and wanting to put your stamp on things. Whether the changes are good or bad remains to be seen, but there will be changes. Also, while the wish of many is that with bigger pockets backing them, Marvel may take more chances outside of superheroes, or give underperforming titles longer to find their audience, and that may be so. But I think it's just as likely that Marvel will try to remain status quo for now, not rocking the boat and trying to bring in as much return on the investment as possible. If you proceed according to the plan in place when the sale was made, you're less likely to be punished than if you deviate from that plan and are seen to be more cavalier with your new money.

Congrats to Alan David Doane on the release today of his new e-book, Conversations With ADD, which collects almost a decade's worth of interviews with comics writers, artists and even retailers, names like Busiek, Seth, French, Chaykin, Bagge, Simonson, and many more. I really enjoyed being involved in the process of helping shape the book--all decisions ADD would have gotten to himself, anyway, but it was nice to be asked--and I liked writing the Foreword. I'm probably too compromised to give the book a review (hopefully other bloggers will), but I did want to point to an interview I read today that I found surprisingly impressive. I say surprisingly because I'm not a great admirer of Ron Marz' work, but I enjoyed his interview here, which was a very recent follow-up to a 2000 interview with ADD about the start of CrossGen Entertainment. Marz is really levelheaded, and amazingly appreciative of the positive aspects of a publishing venture that ended so miserably and so publicly. I give him a lot of credit for holding onto the good things, like the friendships formed during that time, and the rewards of working closely on a comic from start to finish, with all the talent together.

I watched Ed Brubaker's Angel of Death the other night. I didn't even know about this project, somehow, but saw the "Unrated and Unedited" version in Blockbuster. Of course, it is actually edited--they don't just give you cans of film--but whatever. It's, I guess, a little more violent than the version on Spike, and with swear words.

First of all, kudos to Brubaker and/or his agent for getting his name above the title, and in larger type than lead actress Zoe Bell. I know that stuff is hard to negotiate, especially when Brubaker isn't exactly a household name as an author. This is a low budget indie (originally a series of webisodes, with more material added for this release), and that's why he can get away with not only this but getting on the dvd commentary track, and personally I think this was a great idea. Better to have a bigger part and more control of a smaller project than be just another unsung screenwriter. This is a good calling card.

The film itself is B-movie material--a female assassin gets a brain injury during a job and it causes her to have visions of one of the victims, visions so disturbing she has to start taking down the bad guys who put her up to it in order to make the nightmares go away. It's an action thriller with a little bit of J-horror, and a bit of a conscience. Bell isn't a great actress but she's both badass and likeable, which are the two baseline must-haves for this character. Doug (Abe Sapien) Jones has a nice role as the cokey criminal doctor, and Lucy Lawless has a nice turn, ironically serving as an unintentional double for Bell (ironic since Bell was her stunt double on Xena: Warrior Princess). The rest of the cast are serviceable. I kind of liked the young psycho hood looking to take over his dad's empire, but a fair amount of the acting was done by his straight razor and the ridiculous collar pin/chain accessory he wore the whole film. I think I wore the same thing in 1986 when my high school was in the midst of a brief Gordon Gekko fixation or something.

I enjoyed the film, but in all honesty the script didn't seem like something difficult for Brubaker. It got the job done but firmly within the expectations of the genre. I did like that Bell's relationship with her boss was genuine and rooted in mutual warmth, without either one screwing the other over, but it could have used another scene or two to really take hold and raise the film into something special. Director Paul Etheredge did well with his budget, including some fun transitional editing that was sort of cheap but charming. Quite enjoyable, worth a view. Here's hoping to leads to bigger and better things for Etheredge, Bell and Brubaker

Christopher Allen
September 1, 2009

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 013 - Old Man Winter

Old Man Winter
By J.T. Yost
Published by Birdcage Bottom Books. $6.95 USD

Yost is a 2009 Xeric Award winner, and this is a perfect-bound one-shot collecting a few shorts originally featured in other small press anthologies, as well as the previously unpublished title story. It's clear from the start that Yost is ready for a wider audience, at least as an artist. He's got a clean, chunky style not too far removed from Joe Matt or Tom Hart--his shading reminds me of Joe Sacco as well. The big panels and full, densely textured pages give the impression Yost is really enjoying the drawing, so we're off to a pretty good start. We meet and follow an old codger, apparently a widower, who's melancholy and heartbroken but still getting out in the world and trying to relate to people. Yost shows confidence and a feel for little moments in spots here, such as the old man sleeping next his dead wife's ashtray, he never a smoker. Dialogue is pretty well done, too; there's some nice ambiguity with the two shop employees being both sympathetic and cruel to the man. My main issue with the story is it seemed to end too abruptly, especially when the moody scenes didn't drive any particular point home. I wanted it to on with the guy for a while, seeing more of how he fills his grieving days. Also didn't care to see his dead, naked body. That seemed to rob the character of the dignity Yost had taken some care to give him.

"All Is Forgiven" is a silent short about a scientist getting a Dear John letter. Heartbroken, he releases the animals upon which he's been testing products. Due credit for compelling, disturbing imagery, but the point escaped me.

"Logging Sanjay" is a more successful effort, a nice bit of autobio comix about a series of youthful pranks Yost and a buddy carried out on another friend, all harmless though taken a bit too far. "Roadtrip" and "Running Away With/From the Circus" were both commissioned works, the former for a vegan outreach organization and the latter for an art exhibit. They feel like commission works, too, meaning less natural and inspired, more forced and, in the case of "Roadtrip," pedantic. While it seems Yost's vegan beliefs probably run through the "All Is Forgiven" story, too, and it's not entirely successful, at least it has some oddly memorable, unforced moments in it. "Roadtrip" is a tedious series of contrasts between the life of a young American consumer (a kid) enjoying a county fair, and the horrible life of cattle. The nadir of that story was probably the sign above the cattle's path to slaughter reading, "Slayer's Slaughter Est. 1917," because I guess the reader wasn't going to get the point that this was a slaughterhouse without using the word, double-emphasized with an unlikely surname, and with the sign placed where cattle are the most likely to see it (or do the customers go through the same doorway as the cattle?). It's a shame the weakest pieces are at the end, because they definitely take the shine off some of the potential Yost showed earlier. He would do well to keep observing people with the acceptance of their flaws and quirks, as he does in "Old Man Winter," and put the preaching of the earlier stories behind him.

Christopher Allen
August 30th, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 012 - Bite The Beatles

OK, so I read the new Rolling Stone while watching Richard Brooks' 1975 Western, Bite The Bullet. I mean, who hasn't? I didn't read all the magazine, mainly the opening piece on The Beatles from Jann S. Wenner, followed by the Mikal Gilmore article on their breakup, which is what I came for. Gilmore's good, but I have to say Wenner did at least as well in his editorial, drawing from his own personal account of John and Yoko visiting the RS offices in 1970 and then the Lennons and Wenners seeing a screening of Let It Be, the legendary documentary of their fractious sessions that would soon signal the end of the group. As much as The Beatles have marketed themselves for the past 39 years after their breakup, the film remains unavailable on dvd, probably due to its unsettling, myth-busting nature. Wenner was fortunate enough to be there at the moment he realized The Beatles were over, and he remembered it artfully for a nice essay. Gilmore drew on tons of research, and it's a fine article, but I can't say I learned anything new, although he does give much-needed emphasis on how Lennon essentially broke up the band once he felt it was no longer his, but that his act was to a large extent a challenge he didn't expect Paul to accept. He founded the band and expected to end them, and Paul beat him to it, though probably with more of a broken heart than John. I could read variations of the same basic story endlessly, but again, there's nothing especially new here.

Bite the Bullet also deals with two old friends on a journey together, but here they're Gene Hackman and James Coburn, both entered in a 700 mile horse race, against another half-dozen competitors such as Candice Bergen--looking for the chance to free her husband from a chain gang along the way--and Jan-Michael Vincent, who represents impetuous youth and arrogance to contrast the hard-fought wisdom and resignation of Hackman and Coburn. It's a typical Western theme, and indeed Brooks appears to have modeled a fair amount of his Western on Peckinpah's superior The Wild Bunch. Two grizzled guys with a code of honor, a young psycho who won't listen and who serves as a reminder that their time is coming to an end. Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, The Professionals, In Cold Blood) keeps the filming more naturalistic than Peckinpah, but makes great use of the hot sun and white sandy dirt (it could be gypsum) to set the crusty Hackman and Coburn against, with Bergen almost a mirage of serene beauty. She can handle herself physically, but for the most part she she smiles off the indignities before her on this long ride with rough men. I suppose Paul Giamatti is this generation's Hackman, huh? Hackman, with his bristly moustache, receding hair and potato face, is like you or your brother-in-law, only with dignity. There are some nice scenes where we see just how much he cares for horses, which becomes a burden to him later, because of course a 700 mile race is bound to be hard on one's steed, and what do they benefit if you win? There's a great scene early on when he rescues a foal and throws it on the back of his horse, later giving it to a young boy with the advice to never treat her bad. Ironically, this film was before the days when animals were monitored to protect them from harm during filming, so we have several scenes where tripwires appear to be used to represent the horses (or their riders) being shot. One even falls off a cliff into a river, apparently unharmed, but who knows? It's pretty dramatic.

The film clearly hasn't been restored, and at times the corners are fuzzy as if the light behind it is circular and not illuminating all of the widescreen dimensions, and it's very hard to hear a lot of the dialogue. Still, the entire cast acquits itself well and Brooks achieves some poignance in the final scene, pulling out the Peckinpah-style slow motion he'd held in reserve, and then finishing with more simply composed and edited frames of friendship and decency. The DVR guide gave this one three stars, and I'm inclined to agree.

Christopher Allen
August 28th, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 011 - Feeble Solution

So I reviewed the latest issue of Fantastic Four a couple days ago. The first thing I noticed, as it's on page one, is that at the very bottom of the credits, series creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are credited as "The Final Solution." The reason they are credited at all is that it's Marvel's way of giving them respect without actually acknowledging them as the creators (and thus owners) of the characters, and the reason they're credited as "The Final Solution" is pretty clearly because the plot of this issue, or at least the set-up at the end for the rest of the story arc, is that Reed Richards is looking for a solution to everything, ie a final solution.

Of course, Hitler had his own Final Solution in World War II, which was the extermination of all the Jews, and as Stan Lee (Stan Lieber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) were Jewish, the affectionate, tongue-in-cheek credit is unintentionally offensive. It's unfortunate, and I thought as much, but do I expect a twentysomething assistant editor to know the context? Not really. I remember hearing Peter Murphy's 1985 cover of Pere Ubu's 1976 song, "Final Solution," and not connecting it to WWII until a couple years later, and I'm a fairly well-read guy, and that was over 20 years ago. It's not really a part of popular culture and even one who has passed high school history classes could easily have forgotten it. I was honestly a bit more offended by this V thread, which I read as a lot of kneejerk, overblown puffery. It's so clearly not intentionally offensive that, to me, it makes those pouncing on it look more foolish than whoever wrote the credit or the editor who doesn't have a degree in slur detection. The credit ends up being web currency for those who wish to appear right-thinking. "Hey, I know Lee and Kirby are JEWS--everyone should know that! So as JEWS, this is a terrible insult to them." Because on top of knowing a meaning for the final solution that is rather obscure in 2009, the modern comics reader/creator/editor is required to know that two great comics creators are/were Jewish. You know, the two who changed their names so as not to appear Jewish and almost never touched on Judaism at all in their combined 100+ years of comics work. There are only about 18,000 Marvel comics that might offend Lee or Kirby (if he was alive) purely on lack of craft or shameless imitiation, so absolutely let's focus on the one that actually wanted to throw them an affectionate, non-binding shout-out and happened to use a phrase that tied into the issue but had an unfortunate prior connotation.

Christopher Allen
August 28th,2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Breakdowns Palace - Breakdowns #63 (2002)

The following is my 63rd column, from apparently June 11th, 2002. I was just Googling and found it. Why was it at Ain't It Cool News? I was writing for a now-defunct site called GrayHavenMagazine, and we had somehow arranged with AICN to provide comics reviews. We didn't get anything out of it except some visits, but it was fun for the couple months or so it lasted. This Wiki entry details what was going on and how things ended, though as a point of correction I don't recall any stigma about using cursewords for fear publishers wouldn't use the reviews, nor do I recall the stance of only doing positive reviews as being due to concerns about publishers as it was just the philosophy of the GrayHaven owner, Andrew. It was restrictive, though. I left soon to write the column for another, more high-profile (higher than GrayHaven, maybe a little lower profile than AICN) site. Apparently the comics reviews continued by the @$$holes. I don't remember having much conflict with them; they were abrasive but I liked getting feedback, even negative. Of course, I was pretty combative in those days and could be remembering things incorrectly.

Looking at these reviews now, it seems like maybe someone should have interfered, exercising a stronger editorial hand. After the opening, which just strikes me now as evidence of clinical depression, the reviews feel churned out without a lot of thought, insight or supporting arguments. Quite a bit of fawning, though. Okay for Tezuka, Crane and Russell, but Hopeless Savages?! I guess we all start somewhere, and at this point I was maybe a year into it, and had few online peers for inspiration beyond the Randys, Dons and Augies. The best I can say is that at least I was reading some good stuff.

The subtitle refers to a song by The Fall, I suppose loosely connecting to the Tezuka book.

Breakdowns #63 - That's Immortality

Do you ever feel like your life is a chartless void of dimming stars in oilcloth blackness? Or a rickety covered wagon constantly throwing an axle in one ditch after another? Or like you're a fluffy, mute rabbit being pulled by your tender ears from a magician's sweat-brimmed, psoriasis-dotted top hat? Right. Me, neither, because I'm really happy. Happy, happy.
Fortunately, good books can take your mind off things for a bit.

Phoenix: A Tale of the Future by Osamu Tezuka.
Viz Comics. www.viz.com $22.95

If the late Osamu Tezuka had, instead of being one of the most important and prolific comics creators, chosen to create his own religion, his vision would have obliterated that of L. Ron Hubbard. Tom Cruise and John Travolta would have bowed to him, literally and figuratively.

I say this because Phoenix is a deep, complex work deserving of far more study than Dianetics. I want to get off that subject, but suffice it to say that Phoenix is not a self-help book, but more a parable of the flaws inherent in all species-human and animal-which serve to eventually destroy us, flaws such as relying too much on technology and not instinct, and conversely, giving in too much to our instincts for violence over reason. It is also an apocalyptic science fiction thriller, an unusual and touching romance, and a compelling creation myth.

In this story, the population of Earth resides in just five massive city-states, each controlled by its own sentient computer. A proclamation to round up all "moopies", an alien life form which can take on the shape and characteristics of any living creature, including humans, sets Patrolman Masato against his boss, Roc, and the will of the computer. See, he loves his moopie, Tamami, and can't see living without her.

So, Masato escapes to a hidden, domed residence in a frozen wasteland. It's the home and working laboratory of Dr. Saruta, who looks like a wizened version of Yosemite Sam. Saruta has been creating animals and even some humanoids in large tubes, but they keep dissolving when exposed to air. Tamami's physiology represents a possible solution, a way to sustain the human race (in an altered form) through the coming apocalypse. Tamami also may represent (in his eyes) the love so long denied him.

Gripping material, and that's only the beginning of the story, really. Disagreements among two city computers bring about nuclear annihilation, and only Roc escapes to join Masato, Tamami and Saruta, but Roc has his own dark and small-minded visions of the future. There comes a vision of rebirth, a selfless sacrifice, a selfish betrayal, and nothing less than millions of years of evolution, as the being who was once Masato contemplates the flaws of sentient beings and his own virtual godhood.

Drawn in Tezuka's friendly, childlike style, but with elaborate vistas and machinery to spare, this is a stunningly ambitious book in itself, made all the more impressive for being the second entry in a twelve volume series revolving around the phoenix and many eras, past and future, of the destructive nature of humanity. The twelfth edition was unfinished at the time of Tezuka's death in 1989, but I have hopes that Viz brings U.S. readers the others. This volume also includes an interview with the original translators of the material, who give important insight on the master, as well as an overview of the other eleven books.

The Legion #8 by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Olivier Coipel.
DC Comics. $2.50

Call this less of a review than a welding of recommendation and rant. This issue completes the Ra's al Ghul story begun in the first issue. It bills itself as just the conclusion of a three-issue arc, but it's all been pretty much the same rolling tale since the start. I'm not sure why an eight-part Ra's story was approved, but no matter: it was good. The Legion these days is a sleeker, somewhat more violent book than its early days, but it's still got what I think has always been its central appeal. This is a very large team of powerful young people in fast-paced, plot-driven stories of good over evil. There's not a lot of soap operatics, not a lot of X-style angst, just a lot of Coipel visual razzle-dazzle and intricate and convincing pseudo-science. It's a fun, great-looking book. My only complaints are that, eight issues in, it's still hard to tell the personalities and powers without a scorecard or Secret Files, and the cheap paper dulls the impact and does a lot to ensure this latest incarnation of the Legion won't be a big seller. This is a title that would really benefit from glossier stock, even if it meant bumping the price up a bit. It would also be a good (no-brainer) idea to finally get Legion Lost and Legion Worlds into trade paperback form, so I and other new fans can catch up.

30 Days of Night #1 (of 3) by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith.
IDW Publishing. www.idwpublishing.com $3.99

The premise is inspired: a vampire story set in a small, snowed-in Alaska village, where the sun won't rise for another month. And while I'd like to go on from there with how Niles established heroic characters that put the reader right into this spine-tingling horror, I can't quite say that yet. Don't get me wrong; it's a solid start, with Templesmith creating an appropriately bleak setting now invaded by suitably terrible creatures. He's not as adept at the normal people's faces, though, which are inconsistent, leading to less reader identification. The story is good so far, but it's really just the opening salvo, with the main characters introduced and some vampires showing up and killing a few people. It's a fairly thin first act, in other words, and especially for the price, which is a buck more than a book of comparable production value from, say, Image. I will qualify this, though, in saying that if it was a $12 graphic novel, the price wouldn't be bothersome and the lack of plot movement in the first part probably not as noticeable. I'm hoping the next issue really ramps up the tension and surprises, but as it is, it's worth getting, and though still a bit raw, Templesmith is on a pretty fast track to stardom, I think.

The Last Lonely Saturday by Jordan Crane.
Red Ink . Available from Top Shelf Comix. $8.00 U.S.

A much-talked-about book since its publication in 2000, this attractive little tome has the simple rich depth of a gallon of whole milk, and is perhaps equally as nourishing. It's the story of an old, heartbroken man visiting his wife's grave and yearning for the day he can be with her again. That's pretty much it, and it will take only a few minutes more to read the book than this brief review. Crane shows a mastery of not just cartooning here, but book design and coloring. This little object would fit in the back of your jeans, and that's not a bad idea. The portability might encourage you to show it around more, let friends read it quickly and return it to you. He's blurred the lines between comic and sophisticated adult literature, with the widely accessible subject matter, the paper quality (like high quality trade paperbacks), and the art, which uses brown ink instead of black, rarely done in comics, and contrasted superbly with the bright yellow backgrounds. It's a beautiful little book and singular artists like Crane (who also edits the anthology comic NON) should be encouraged for their unique, un-cynical vision.

Hopeless Savages: Ground Zero #1 by Jen Van Meter, Christine Norrie and Andi Watson.
Oni Press. www.onipress.com $2.95

Frankly, the first miniseries kicked me out by the third issue, so I didn't even finish. I didn't care for the pacing and the plot took a definite backseat to gags and attitude, and characters I couldn't quite get a handle on. But things have changed.

This new mini begins, well, brilliantly. Van Meter hits my sweet spot this time-I'm a sucker for stories of teen love and angst-and this time Skank Zero becomes more accessible and appealing in her fumbling attempts to find a boy who's not a completely dishonest, hormonal weasel. And her mom knows just what she's going through, which is why she's doing her best to keep her away from the groping and heartbreak. Zero is a good character, and I'm now finding I really like her made-up lingo.

Norrie for her part has taken a leap in quality, laying down much thicker, more confident lines in a style a little like the Jamie Howlett Gorillaz artwork, but rougher and less iconic. More organic, actually. Whereas in the previous miniseries her style was somewhat dwarfed by the more accomplished Chynna Clugston-Major, here she holds her own with the latest cameo artist, Andi Watson, which is no mean feat. Watson does do a typically beautiful job in his few pages, but it's not really essential to the story, more a pretty digression. Since I wasn't that fond of the first, I'd have to think that those many who liked it will really love this, as I did.

Murder Mysteries by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell.
Dark Horse Comics. www.darkhorse.com $13.95

Adapting the Gaiman short story, Russell has taken a diamond and with gemological skill, created additional facets with his artistry. The story is a murder mystery, but like none you've ever read. The framing device is an unsettling story itself, of an Englishman visiting Los Angeles for the first time, probably inspired by Gaiman's personal experience to some extent, and then meeting a woman who perhaps loved too deeply. The ambiguities in this tale are exquisite, but the heart of Murder Mysteries is the story of an angel, Raguel, who as the Vengeance of The Lord, is sort of Heaven's Private Detective, investigating the very first murder of an angel and interviewing suspects. This is wonderful stuff, full of fantastic ideas about how the universe might have been made. The angels we meet are essentially a research and development division for God, creating emotions like Love and conditions such as Death through study one can't quite call scientific. It's a deeply satisfying idea he presents that the "big ideas" like Love and Death have to be experienced by the angels in order to be understood and made to God's order. And what one of them experiences leads to this murder, and has other far-ranging effects on theology I won't spoil here. It's not just head-bursting stuff, though; it's just a completely entrancing read, impossible to put down. I meant to read just a few pages over cereal this morning and ended up late for work, having to finish it.

Seems like a good place to end it, with such an excellent book by two masters. Murder Mysteries is also quite a bargain, I might add, when I could easily see it going for $25 from another publisher.

Chris Allen
June 11th, 2002

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 010 - WTFF

When I not only reactivated my Breakdowns column but brought it back as more or less a daily occurrence--let's say 3-5 times a week--I guess I wasn't thinking ahead. I need to read more comics, as I just don't have the time to knock off a graphic novel a night, much less review it. So, in that spirit, I figured I'd maybe pick up one or two new floppies a week as well, nothing too crazy, and in that way also re-wet my feet with the Marvel/DC shenanigans. While I looked at quite a few titles in the shop this evening, I just didn't want to drop right into the middle of a storyline, and quite frankly, that excludes about 90-95% of most monthly titles. So I picked this one, as I've been hearing some rumblings about this writer, and this is the first issue of the new creative team.

Fantastic Four #570
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Dale Eaglesham
Published by Marvel Comics. $2.99 USD

First of all, I like that I was the one to pick up the variant cover. It's really just an enlargement of the circular character illustration on the first page, but even though I'm not looking to sell this issue and probably won't even treat it that well, I like to get the variant more often than not.

Secondly, I like that Marvel reinstated the practice of making the first page of the comic background for new readers. Maybe that means one less page of story, but still, it seems like a good idea. Of course, next issue it won't, since I'm caught up now.

The issue starts with a scene from Reed Richards' childhood, when he's scared and doesn't want to take a chance, and his dad instills in him that it's okay to fail, but unacceptable to not try. It's about as on-the-nose as writing gets, but I didn't mind it. At least Hickman is trying to explore a lesser-seen side of Reed. I didn't think Eaglesham needed to draw the vines around the panels, but okay, he's trying to make a good first impression.

The villain in this issue is the Wizard. Right there, anyone who has read one comic featuring the Wizard will realize that he will not be the real focus of the issue, and he will be brought down quickly and easily. This time he's using clones of himself inside armored suits, each one designed to handle a specific member of the FF. For a genius, that plan seems really narrow-minded, huh? Still, Hickman manages to get some resonance from the boy left behind. Is he a young clone of the Wizard? The Wizard's real son? I wasn't sure, but a sleepy Franklin Richards imploring his dad to help the boy means that that particular plot thread will definitely be dealt with later.

Eaglesham draws a nice Reed. Growing up with John Byrne's rendition and then everyone after him, I really haven't had much exposure to a barrel-chested Reed aside from Lee/Kirby reprints, and it's fun for a change. With his stubble, he's basically a two-eyed Nick Fury. The rest of the team are fine but don't really stand out, and they don't really get a chance to show off their powers here. That's fine, though. If Hickman wants to do his FF with Reed as the star, I'm okay with that.

I honestly don't remember when Valeria came into this book as the second child of Reed and Sue--maybe the Waid/Wieringo run?--but I like that she will end up smarter than Reed, and that her brilliance isn't portrayed as totally creepy, just a little unsettling.

Some Ben/Johnny comedy feels like filler, and then we get to the cool part of the issue, where Reed starts thinking of how he can save his world, and then he's visited by three versions of himself, who take him to a place outside of time, where there are dozens of other Reeds from other timelines. It's a very Alan Moore kind of moment, reminiscent of something in Supreme, but it works well, especially as Hickman and Eaglesham are not compelled to do variations on something as tired as Superman's costume. What can I say? I thought this was a pretty good start, and will stick with it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 009 - Someday Funnies

Today a friend sent me a message on Facebook asking if it had "hit" me yet that I'd turned 40, which happened last Tuesday the 18th but which I was celebrating in downtown San Diego last night. Well, not exactly celebrating, but more on that later. My immediate response is that no, it hasn't hit me yet, and I'm still essentially the same guy I've always been. But upon reflection, I guess it has brought about some changes. For one thing: more reflection! I'm reflecting on aging comics creators and musicians, on the ambition of my earlier work (this privately, not on the blog), and other items. I also recently closed out a self-storage space of my comics and graphic novels and began organizing an already-cluttered garage with the several dozen additional boxes added from the storage space, pruning out some books I realized meant little to me even at the time but I couldn't be bothered to sell or trade (Route 666, anyone?). I even had a large box filled with wires and cables from various electronic components, as well as several unopened, blank VHS cassettes--things that seemed important five or six years ago for which I have no use today.

I'm currently still writing, in short bursts, a graphic novel begun around the same time ago, and so I understand what it is to dream, to have a vision one cannot let go. I found while reading Bob Levin's superlative history of Michael Choquette's unrealized comics anthology, Someday Funnies, in The Comics Journal #299, that I could relate to Choquette, who pursued this dream project through several would-be financiers and publishers and across several countries, for years, before eventually having to abandon it, bankrupt. I think without Levin's piece, Choquette would be even less known than he is, which I think would be a shame, or he might have been written off as a charlatan, a guy who duped nearly 200 cartoonists or other celebrities willing to try their hand at comics into producing work that would never see the light of day. While Levin is right to point out some practical questions a reader might have, such as why Choquette didn't just complete the small comics supplement for Rolling Stone originally commissioned, with the large book project pursued afterward, it seems to me that the '70s were a time when almost anything seemed possible if one had enough vision, charisma and tenacity. In amassing the amazing roster of talent Choquette did, I'm sure he felt he couldn't let them down by giving up, even though he was at the same time leaving them uncompensated and unable to use the work they'd produced, elsewhere. I've seen it happen firsthand where a comics anthology never gets published and the recriminations and demands fly, and Someday Funnies is just the most amazing and lavish example of it.

I can say that had I read this article five years ago, I would probably have seized on the details of Choquette's living beyond his means, having champagne or mint-with-lamb-sauce lunches with prospective publishers, traveling to Europe, etc., as evidence of a man out of touch and out of control. Now, I see a man trapped, forced to do his best to impress the money men that he was a professional worth taking a chance on for a large, expensive project. Hollywood is filled with stories of people reduced to paupers trying to realize dreams of producing a film, and undoubtedly the audience is a little poorer for some of these films never happening. I guess I'm a little kinder to the dreamer these days.

I'm also more inclined these days to try to take things as they come and enjoy them for what they are. Perhaps paradoxically, as much as I admire the dreamer in everyone, I'm more apt these days to compromise and live for today. I acted this out just last night, heading downtown to celebrate my birthday at a bar/restaurant when almost everyone I invited had other plans or couldn't get babysiters, and no one had actually confirmed they were definitely coming. I decided I would just go and see what happened, and if no one showed up, I could always have a couple drinks, eat something, watch some sports at the bar, and head home. After all, nothing interesting would happen if I just called it off and stayed home. And it turns out, something interesting did happen, as one friend showed up because he had a gig with his '80s themed band later that evening, and he invited me to hang out with a couple of his friends beforehand. The man is the attorney for a long-running American rock band and his partner sold the search engine she started during the dotcom boom for several million dollars. Still, they were nice, down-to-earth people. She readily admitted she was very lucky, and she was not just living for today but also spent a lot of time and money helping others with some charitable organizations.

Contrast that with the scene that met me as I tried to return home this morning after picking up a few items from the grocery store for a barbecue. The street I live on was blocked from entry by police, as there was an horrendous auto accident. Someone was being placed on a gurney, the blanket covering her (I think--I saw a man holding a young child, looking into the ambulance as this person was loaded) with some spreading blood stains, while a fireman used a shovel to spread dirt on the gas leaking onto the street from one of the cars. If that isn't a hint to make the most of every day, I don't know what is, although in my case, as I couldn't go home for a while, it meant I pulled over on a side street and talked to a buddy about, among other things, the Choquette piece, as a purchased pork shoulder sat on the floor of my car, its own blood pooling in the styrofoam tray it came in.

*Post-script: After writing the above, I put in a little time on my garage organizing project, and opened a box containing some books and magazines, one of probably twenty-five. I immediately found The Best of National Lampoon #3, which coincidentally contained the humorous Hitler photo essay by Choquette, mentioned in Levin's article. Quite a coincidence.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 008 - The Lone Ranger Vol. 2

The Lone Ranger Vol. 2
Written by Brett Matthews
Art by Sergio Cariello and Paul Pope
Published by Dynamite Entertainment. $14.99 USD

I wrote recently about a "box that time forgot," which was a compilation of back orders sent to me out of the blue from an online comics retailer. Apparently they weren't in stock for quite some time, from five months to almost a year. This volume was one of the older ones, a collection of Dynamite's Lone Ranger #7-11. I know I liked the first volume a lot--I only gave a mild shit about the Lone Ranger before due to watching the TV reruns as a kid on Sunday mornings, since I never had to go to church, but aside from I think a Tim Truman-drawn miniseries in the '90s that I remember being okay but not as good as Jonah Hex, I didn't care all that much about the character. Oh, and I have a vague memory of seeing the Klinton Spilsbury-starring film from the early '80s at a drive-in as a kid, which I remember being a tremendous flop.

Matthews did a nice job in the first volume establishing the Lone Ranger as a man with a personal mission--to avenge the murders of his parents and in general, bring justice to the Old West, where often the law was just as corrupt as the outlaws. Sergio Cariello, an unfamiliar name to me, was a good choice as artist, as he brought a spare but intense style to the proceedings, his faces showing a heavy Joe Kubert influence, which is never a bad thing. Both creators are back for these five issues, which are essentially two separate stories with some continuing plotlines.

Matthews overtly makes the Ranger into an Old West version of Batman, right down to his headquarters being in a cave or mine, and his mask hangs over his nose in such a way that his profile is very similar to the Dark Knight's. Again, one could do worse than to have Batman as an influence. Tonto is his partner but, while not equal, is not afraid to speak his mind if he disagrees. Tonto has some mystery to him that Matthews plays with a little, teasing the reader as there's still not a lot there, but it's really well-done when Tonto tells the Ranger he's not one for stories, after a big chunk of the issue dealt with Tonto telling a story to a condemned man. Tonto may trust the Ranger with his life, but he's not going to open up any time soon.

There's another interesting character dynamic between the Ranger and his brother's widow. She obviously has fallen for him, and wants his strong male influence around for her boy, but he's reluctant, out of a sense of duty or honor. We've seen the tortuously delayed romance between two suitable people many times before, but it's always satisfying when it's done well. As far as plotting, Matthews is maybe in a transitional stage here. There's not a lot going on in the main stories, but the good stuff is the building of the three main characters, as well as the Ranger's sworn enemy Butch Cavendish eventually abandoning his respectable society disguise and returning to his overtly villainous ways. It's a little drawn out, but once it happens, it's good, and looks to be setting up some good stories to follow.

Some might dismiss this as just some more forgettable licensed work. After all, Dynamite has built themselves on licensed properties, many of which were probably not that hard to get at this point, like Army of Darkness or Red Sonja. Even their hottest property, Battlestar Galactica, is now finished as a series. But The Lone Ranger is the oldest of them, and yet had maybe the least to live up to. Those that remember the show remember the look of the characters, the silver bullets, and Silver the horse, and that's about it. No memorable stories. A barrel-chested tabula rasa for a character. And that's worked out really well for Matthews, as he has undertaken the challenge seriously to present a compelling group of characters in a violent, sexy but principled Western setting. Good work.

Christopher Allen
August 20th, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 007 - Losing My Edge (Pt. II)

Yesterday, I wrote about what that point when artists (be they musicians, directors, authors, or comics creators) produce work that fails to connect with us in as satisfying a way as it once did. It's true that on some level, everyone's a critic, and it's also true that one's tastes are made up of an amalgamation of thousands of past experiences and sensations, and probably some DNA as well. Boys play rough and taunt each other, so it's no wonder they like The Three Stooges more than girls.

It's frustrating, however, that so many of us don't seem to recognize that every one's tastes are unique, as are the external factors influencing one's work, so every artist can and should be expected to disappoint eventually. Due to the pressures of being seen as some sort of poet-prophet in his youth, and/or because he just felt like doing something different, Bob Dylan willfully defied expectations in the mid-'60s by going electric, and would, with his Self-Portrait album in the '70s, confound his audience yet again, with parodies of other artists like Paul Simon, and vapid original material seemingly meant to challenge just how much a Dylan fan could take. And his changing of religious faith in the '70s also resulted in material that turned some listeners off, who perhaps were less interested in a non-skeptical Bob.

I notice I'm guilty of the same thing I find distasteful in others, which is trying to assign motivation for an artist for the work they produce. Whatever Dylan was trying to do with Self-Portrait, I don't know, just like another band going back to their more guitar-based sound might be commercially motivated, it might be because it feels good at the moment, or both or neither of those reasons. It gets funnier to read these analyses when it comes to comics, because a) even bad comics take a lot of physical effort to produce, and b) there's not a lot of money to be made.

Money is going to be a factor in almost everything an artist does. Aside from charity work or favors to friends, this is their job--making art--and they want to make a decent living at it. One should assume it's a factor and then not concern oneself with it, but too often, critics see an artist working on a franchise character or sequel to something successful, and think that the promise of a big payday means the artist isn't going to give his best effort. I think most artists do want to please themselves, with the audience hopefully following and satisfied. Few want to have a flop on their resume.

I'm hardly a student of the world, but I do know the U.S. public and our media emphasize accomplishments in terms of sales and box office, who's hot and who's not, etc. I think the European critical model is more balanced and healthier. They look at an artist's body of work and treat the latest product as just one more step on a journey. I think that's useful, and I think it's also useful to just look at an artist as a person trying to express themselves the best they can, despite a range of changing internal and external influences and impediments. Like anyone, they will fail at times, or they will succeed on their own terms, and those terms may no longer be relatable to others. As a member of the audience, whether a critic or not, we all have our own individual limits of how far we will follow an artist from the course we expect them to follow. Some get one CD or film or graphic novel. Others get the rest of their careers to try to ignite our senses the way they did long ago. There's some nostalgia and faith involved, maybe even kindness, and I don't see anything wrong with that, although that nostalgia can also be a straitjacket, such as the David Mazzucchelli "fan" who really just wants him to do superheroes again. Can John Byrne or Frank Miller do it again? M. Night Shyamalan? The Cure? Who knows, but I've certainly seen it happen now and again with other artists. It seems to me that if an artist has meant something to you, while it's fine to have high expectations, it's also a little ungrateful and just not understanding of what it means to be an artist not to expect some work to fail, and not to be prepared to stick with the artist for a while.

Christopher Allen
August 19th, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 006 - Losing My Edge

It's not a good start to one's fortieth birthday when he forgets to be the Tooth Fairy.

Actually, this is the second day in a row. My daughter pulled her own tooth out on Sunday, and before I could stop her, blasted the faucet on the tooth in the palm of her hand to clean it, sending it down the drain. Even after taking the pipe off, it was nowhere to be found, so her grandmother, visiting this week, suggested a note to the Tooth Fairy about what happened, signed by all of us. Great idea. But Sunday night my daughter fell asleep on the couch and we forgot to put the note under the pillow. Fair enough.

Last night, both of us fell asleep on the couch. I woke up about 12:30 and left her there as I stumbled off to bed. I didn't fall asleep right away and could here her coming to her room after 1:00. I didn't think about getting any money in there until I woke up again about 6:30, and she was already awake and sad. I told her it could be that the Tooth Fairy was busy last night, or maybe you have to be in bed before midnight, but of course I regret the Tooth Fairy rules getting more and more complex for a six year old.

This leads me, a little awkwardly, to something I'd planned on writing about today, anyway, which is the childlike faith, and childish expectations, we place in and on our artists. This sprang from a post by Tim O'Neil on his blog, The Hurting about the band Wilco and how, since he hadn't liked their last two CDs, was ready to drop them. I commented on this, because it resonated with me not only because Wilco is one of my favorite bands (and yes, the new CD is, I think, one of their weaker efforts), but because of the obvious disappointment and, well, hurting on the part of O'Neil. It reminded me of myself at various times in the past, when a band I loved such as New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen, Squeeze or The Cure faltered with a respective album. Their music spoke to me and I trusted them to keep doing it, keep in line with what I needed to hear at the moment, and suddenly we were out of step. It feels like kind of a betrayal. How dare you try to become more commercial, or write more love songs or soccer anthems or have that lame producer do a dull remix of you single? How dare your b-sides start to really sound like b-sides and not great songs that could have fit on the album?

Wilco, despite not being a big, chart-topping band, have a lot of credibility (as Tim notes, they're often considered an artistic counterpart to Radiohead, as R.E.M. was to U2 in the '80s and early '90s), they are a well-documented band, with several documentary/concert films depicting not only the strength of their live performance but the changes in personnel and the change in frontman/songwriter Jeff Tweedy from substance abuser to apparently happy, clean, suburban rocker dad/husband.

This gets to one of the problems of fandom, in that we all have our favorite eras of an artist or band, but seem to resent when that era ends and the artist/band naturally moves on to try to do something else that interests them. We want rich musicians, or filmmakers, or comics creators, to continue to be as experimental, or angry, in their 30s and 40s and they were in their 20s. Everything involved with U2's Pop album and tour was seen by many longtime fans as an affront to them, even a betrayal, as U2 weren't supposed to like techno and glam and have a sense of humor and theater; they were supposed to write anthems and wave flags around and make speeches. The internal and external tensions involved in Wilco's recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot resulted in excellent music, but those tensions could not be duplicated, nor could anyone reasonably expect Tweedy to want to repeat them. Basically, for better or worse, the guy is making the music he wants to make, with musicians with whom he's comfortable. It may very well be that more interesting music could arise from a different band member or producer with different sensibilities than Tweedy's, but that's the way it is, right? Whether it's a band or a website or your office job, sometimes you have to go with what's easier to deal with every day than fraught dynamics that may produce startling work if you don't kill each other. What one has to realize is that every artist who does meaningful work--who earns a following because that work resonates with the audience--is bound to eventually do work that confounds, disappoints or even infuriates that audience. I much prefer electric Bob Dylan to the folk-era Bob Dylan, as some may have only come around to him since his '90s comeback that draws more on the blues and Tin Pan Alley traditions.

I want to get into this further tomorrow, especially as it relates to comics, but hey, it's my birthday, and I'm getting a massage.

Christopher Allen
August 18th, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 005 - Wednesday Comics

Wednesday Comics is what got me back into a comic shop after an absence of a couple years, and what got me back into picking up "floppies." It won't keep me there.

I like the basic idea of the series--DC superheroes done by top talents in a page-a-week newsprint format reminiscent of the grand comics sections of the '30s and '40s. Editor Mark Chiarello has a track record of good taste and good design. And charging $3.99 a week, while a bit pricey for fifteen pages of content on newsprint, wouldn't be too bad if the stories themselves were good. But...well, I was heading in this direction almost from the beginning, but last night when I read #5 and then decided I'd rather read some more of The Comics Journal than #6, I realized it was time to bow out. I'd probably rather try out a different $3.99 floppy every week than stick with this.

Let's just take a look at the various serials and what went wrong, or hasn't gone right enough.

Batman - Eduardo Risso's art is always good, though he draws Bruce Wayne as rather thuggish. The problem I had was Azzarello's story. I've never thought he had a good take on Batman. The murder mystery is dragging along because Azzarello would rather write one scene after another of unpleasant people sneering and/or flirting with each other, Batman and even Alfred being included in the unpleasantness. Don't care.

Kamandi. Ryan Sook does the best art in here, and as an old Prince Valiant type of adventure serial, Dave Gibbons does okay, yet I think going for that archaic, narration-heavy style is a straitjacket for this story. It keeps it from breathing. Probably the most successful strip here, and that's depressing, because it should be a lot better.

Superman - I don't know what the hell John Arcudi is thinking here, but the more Superman whines about Earth not being his home, the less I like it. The rest of the dialogue is horrendous, too. Pa Kent getting all green and excited about the biofuels exhibit. Bermejo can definitely draw, but the storytelling is a bit stiff, or maybe Arcudi relies on him too much to sell a scene silently. Barbara Ciardo's coloring is more like varnish--really don't like the end result.

Deadman - J. Bullock at least has the right idea here--action-packed, traditional Deadman story that makes use of the larger format for wilder layouts. It's nothing too great, but I guess it falls on the positive side.

Green Lantern - I think Kurt Busiek and Joe Quinones have a good handle on this one, too. Good, clean art and the story moves briskly. I'm positive on this one as well.

Metamorpho -Mike Allred is the right choice of artist for a retro take on Metamorpho, and it's kind of fun to read Neil Gaiman not being Neil Gaiman. Just not that fun. Allred makes use of the format, but Gaiman just isn't moving things along well enough. Pet peeve:

Teen Titans - Ugly art by Sean Galloway that then takes its watered-down manga stylistic influence and further mutes the effect with drab coloring. Eddie Berganza's script is uninvolving.

Adam Strange - Paul Pope rarely fails to be interesting. I'm liking this retro space opera well enough, though I'm already looking forward to the next Pope project, you know?

Supergirl - Yes, Amanda Connor has an attractive style suited to cute girl superheroes and their cuter pets. But I'm tired of this story.

Metal Men - Berganza can at least rest assured that there's one editor who makes a worse writer than him--Dan DiDio. There's probably only one writer in the world really made to write Metal Men, and we're still looking for that guy, forty years later. But certainly most other scribes would treat these gimmicky characters with the light touch required, and keep them away from stories with desperate airport terrorists. I'd like to say DiDio is squandering the work of Jose Garcia-Lopez and Kevin Nowlan, but I have to say their work here isn't great, although solidly composed.

Wonder Woman - Ben Caldwell takes what may have been an interesting idea--early adventure of Diana, where she has to gather seven mystic something-or-others--and breaks it into what looks like about 50 little, hard-to-follow panels, drenched in hazy twilight colors and clogged with text in a hard-to-read font. It's utterly wrong, and unreadable.

Sgt. Rock and Easy Co. - Adam Kubert writes a story for dad Joe, and while Joe still draws with the best of them, I can't summon much interest. Not bad, but I'm sure if one really wants some Sgt. Rock, there's plenty of it in archive volumes or even quarter bins.

Flash/Iris West - Karl Kerschl had a decent idea on paper--old school Barry Allen Flash time travel story, but we'll give half the page over to Iris' point of view as she's tired of Barry's Flash antics always getting in the way of their marriage. And yet, I don't really buy that Iris is over Barry, and if it's just an act to get Barry to change his act, why is she perpetrating it when Kerschl and artist Brenden Fletcher depict Barry as such a puppy dog who can't take those kinds of emotional games? Iris just comes off as kind of a bitch.

Demon/Catwoman - Glad Walt Simonson and Brian Stelfreeze are getting work. The art is nice. Not really into the premise, as it doesn't really use Catwoman's best qualities (like, being a hot, saucy chick in a leather outfit instead of a panther), but if I was sticking with the book this would be okay.

Hawkman - a really curious effort from Kyle Baker. We get the thoughts of birds. We get terrorists--no, wait, now they're aliens. We get lovely drawing but some seriously wonky coloring. We get painstaking inking and terribly lazy, thick Paintbrush outlines, and a fascination with texture over storytelling intent, such as when an airplane hatch blows open and Baker feels it's important to reflect the explosion on the shiny wing, thereby diluting the effect (it's also drawn too far away). He's probably having a ball here, but it doesn't translate consistently to the reader from panel to panel, nor does it seem to matter much whether it's Hawkman or someone else involved.

Wednesday Comics is a smartly designed, sporadically diverting, well-intentioned dud. It needed maybe two or three killer strips to keep me going with the others, and I just can't find anything better than pretty good.

Christopher Allen
August 17th, 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 004 - Hero Comics

Hero Comics
With contributions from Howard Chaykin, Gene Colan, Gene Ha, Josh Medors, William Messner-Loebs, David Lloyd and others.
Published by IDW Publishing. $3.99 USD

A comic book for charity can be a tough thing for a critic to review. Let's face it, there's little to be gained by beating up on something produced primarily to help people in need rather than to make money for the creators and publisher. In all honesty, if this was just a book of pin-ups, that would be okay, because four bucks to maybe help a comics creator in need is a small price to pay. Fortunately, the creators here give a better effort than that, and we've got some pretty big names, too.

Howard Chaykin starts things off with an American Flagg story, this one finding Reuben Flagg approached by a "where are they now?" kind of documentary, which makes him defensive and yearning for the days when he was a big star. It's clearly Chaykin reflecting on his own diminished fame, and yet as transparent as that is, it still represents a degree of complexity and subtlety the other pieces here don't possess. It's also the best drawn and best colored story here.

Josh Medors gives us a one-pager that's basically a note of gratitude for the Hero Initiative (the charity served by this comic) for helping with his medical bills when he had cancer. Messner-Loebs' "Room 4" is basically the same thing, although the circumstances were that he and his wife lost their home due to fire and needed help getting back on their feet. These are not complex works--they're not even that well-done--but they do give readers testimonials of the results of the Hero Initiative.

David Lloyd, whose work is seen far too rarely these days, gives a nice two-pager that shows a man's world brighten up when he visits a cemetary, as if rekindling a connection with someone lost. The grey washes are lovely, but the watercolor work is doubly so.

Gene Ha draws a story by Lowell Francis, with Ha's former Top Ten partner Zander Cannon doing the lettering. It's one of the few stand-alone stories not about the person writing it, the Hero Initiative, or both. It's sort of a Hollywood satire about a remake of Samson, of all things, and though the artwork is terrific, the story is not that funny and goes nowhere.

Gene Colan's one-page "Safe Haven," tries to tie into the charity, but it actually has a dark twist ending. It's great seeing Colan draw anything, but Tom Smith's coloring is so dark it's kind of a cheat to Colan fans.

Bill Willingham writes and draws (yes, he used to draw a lot before he was just a writer) the only story here I found actually irritating. A tiny superhero named Inchworm fights a "frogbat" while he tells readers that if they're buying this comic at the convention (read: CCI: San Diego), they must already have money set aside for sketches, so why not ask Mr. Artist to knock a couple bucks off his fee so you can give them to The Hero Initiative. Now, although $3.99 isn't going to make a big difference in any down-on-his-luck comics pros fortunes, it still feels a little icky giving 10% of the comic over to an additional shakedown rather than entertainment, not to mention that the plan to ask other professionals to help subsidize one's own charitable contributions has some flaws in it.

Maybe the most satisfying work in the book are five pages of art from Arthur Adams, including an exquisite black-and-white spread of his own Monkeyman & O'Brien, followed by recreations of classic Marvel comics covers. Getting back to that pin-up idea, I spent more time poring over this artwork than most of the stories in the book. Great stuff.

Mark (Xenozoic Tales) Schultz also contributes a pin-up called, "The Dawn Patrol," and Schultz fans will be happy that it's got dinosaurs and cleavage, but I sure wish there was more than just that one page.

Hero Initiative's Charles Novinskie contributes a recollection of late artist Dave Simons, who was working on something for this book when he passed away. A page of script is included.

Kaare Andrews delivers a four-page fantasy tale with a twist ending that's not bad. The art is okay as well, though hampered by really narrow panels, and the banal rhymes in the narration are a down. We finish off with non-logo'd covers by J. Scott Campbell and Matt Wagner.

Hero Initiative President Jim McLauchlin writes the last piece, a one-pager about a respected veteran who confessed to him that without timely help from the charity, he would have ended his own life. Rodolfo Migliari draws it, and it's a sobering, effective conclusion to the book.

One could do a lot worse than throwing down four bucks for this comic. Certainly the charity is worth at least that much for nothing in return but a good feeling, and here you get a decent story or two and some nice artwork. For more information or to send donations, go to Hero Initiative.

Christopher Allen
August 14th, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 003.5 (Bonus) - Suicide Night Robots

I was checking past blogs and noticed a draft for what was pretty much a complete trio of reviews that I forgot to post, from October of 2008. It appears that I set it aside in order to review Dan Brereton's Nocturnals: Carnival of Beasts one-shot, and then never did. Sorry, Dan. I do remember it was a pretty nice book even if he only illustrated part of it.

The Night Of Your Life
Writing and Art by Jesse Reklaw
Published by Dark Horse Comics. $15.95 USD.

Jesse Reklaw has created his own particular comics niche in Slow Wave, wherein he distills the dreams of readers into a four panel comic strip in many alternative newsweeklies. It's a fun idea--surreal dream logic adapted into clear storytelling and a rigid comics grid for contrast. And this collection is enjoyable for a while, until it isn't. Reklaw favors reader dreams that mix the mundane with the fantastic or pop-cultural, such as a man using a new power to buy microwave hamburgers. In a weekly format, this probably works well amid the interviews and movie reviews and local color. One after another, it loses its luster quickly. Something I thought was a can't-miss idea--a window into other lives like PostSecret or FOUND Magazine, is instead a chore to finish.

Suicide Squad: From The Ashes TPB
Written by John Ostrander
Penciled by Javier Pina
Inked by Robin Riggs
Published by DC Comics. $19.99 USD.

Growing up reading Marvel Comics almost exclusively, it wasn't really until Marvel defectors John Byrne and Frank Miller ended up at DC in the second half of the '80s did I start reading those titles, and while never a big seller, the John Ostrander/Kim Yale-written Suicide Squad was a big favorite of mine. As dark as comics have gotten since, the concept of a costumed team where any of the members could die on a mission still seems pretty fresh, especially when dealing with less-popular characters whose resurrection is not preordained by the bottom line.

While I have kept a favorable opinion of Ostrander's writing over the years, I haven't read enough to remember just what makes it good. This eight issue miniseries reminded me: Ostrander's a damn good plotter. The story inevitably deals with the reforming of the Squad, some joining just to try to rescue their old leader Rick Flag, who turns out to be alive, but of course by the end there will be a need for the team to continue. Ostrander keeps the story surprising and with enough going on for a year's worth of most comics, and his characterization is also sharp, reminding us that in the right hands, Rick Flag, Bronze Tiger and Deadshot aren't just second-stringers, and that Amanda Waller is about the best female DC character of all time.

Robot Dreams
Writing and Art by Sara Varon
Published by FirstSecond Books. $16.95 USD.

There have been quite a few cute graphic novels about different creatures joining together in friendship, so this story of a dog and his robot and their friendship and separation needed to stand out. Due to the charming artwork and lovely pastel coloring--warm but with a touch of melancholy--it does. But the story, or stories, are what really matter here, and for about half the bookt Varon succeeds. You feel for the robot, suffering from the dog's callousness and ability to move on with new friendships, but oddly enough, Varon lets this narrative engine sputter and die for a series of cute but inconsequential stories of the dog and robot having separate lives. Perhaps Varon wants to tell us that life goes on, but as it seems to go on so easily for both characters after the initial difficulty, one is left feeling this friendship was rather superficial, and by extension the book is, too. A disappointment after a strong start to find the author letting it slip through her fingers.

Christopher Allen
October 27, 2008 / August 15, 2009

If you'd like your book reviewed in Daily Breakdowns, email me.

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Daily Breakdowns 003 - The Stuff of Legend

The Stuff of Legend Vol. I: The Dark, Book 1
Written by Mike Raicht and Brian Smith
Illustrated by Charles Paul Wilson III
Published by Th3rdworld Studios. $4.99 USD

I guess this makes me one of those guys who has to describe things as a cross between something and something, but this new comic reads kind of like Fables crossed with Toy Story. Writers Raicht and Smith are smart to set about smashing that Toy Story feel right away, though, as we only start seeing the boy's toys start talking and moving on their own after the boy has been snatched from his room by some creepy black tendrils. Didn't see that coming. Led by the Colonel--a WWI soldier figure (the story takes place in 1944)--a handful of brave toys mobilize to head off into the dark to rescue the boy from the Boogeyman. Yes, the Boogeyman, and it's a testament to the writers and artist Wilson III that this Boogeyman is honestly pretty scary. He's flamboyant and gloating and manipulative and prone to sudden violence; pretty standard devil stuff here but well-done, and a good character design.

The art by Wilson III is strong, confident but not precious, and delicately shaded without being too fussy. The somber palette lets one know that this isn't going to be a children's book even if the book's dimensions are closer to that format than the typical comic book. When the toys enter the world of the dark, they basically come to life as their idealized selves, and it's astonishingly well realized by Wilson, with Max the teddy bear's transformation to grizzly being the most dramatic. I kind of like that the Boogeyman's world isn't filled with really obvious signifiers of evil. It's just rolling hillocks, some normal oak trees--it makes the Boogeyman stand out more, with his dark cloak dripping malevolence upward like a lava lamp.

I like Percy the Pig, too; he's going to be a pivotal character. Right now it seems it was the Colonel's worst mistake to recruit him for this mission, but the beats of the story and the characterization of The Boogeyman reminded me quite a bit of Stephen King's The Stand, so I would not be surprised if Percy gets a chance for redemption eventually. He's a great choice for recruitment to "the dark side"--all the toys "live" with the realization they may be forgotten by the boy, but only Percy might be intentionally broken, since he's a piggy bank. I was also taken by the idea, expressed by the Native American Princess doll, that these toys each have a bit of the boy's soul in them, due to the ways in which the boy plays with them, and presumably the amount of time spent playing as well, with The Colonel representing the brave part of the boy's soul. A nice idea that stayed with me.

It appears readers are in for a long story, though, with many battles and twists to come. And that's fine, because at $4.99 for an extra-sized, gorgeous chunk of fantasy, this one is a real bargain. Those looking for the next eye-opening debut, the next Mouse Guard, would do well to check this one out.

Christopher Allen
August 14th, 2009

If you'd like your book reviewed in Daily Breakdowns, email me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 002 - Womb 'N Torch

You know, I've been largely outside of the regular New Comics Day/Newsarama/Blogosphere world for at least a couple years now, reading reviews here and there but avoiding most of the fluff and ordering mainly trades and graphic novels from online retailers. And for the most part, I want to continue getting most of my comics that way. But I guess I'm an addict like any other, and so with the intention of only checking out Wednesday Comics, I entered my semi-local (not far from a 45 minute commute) comic shop and picked up the fourth issue, now two weeks ago. I subsequently switched to a much better shop and now am caught up on all of Wednesday, some stuff for my kids, The Comics Journal, and some new stuff. Heck, I even picked up a new floppy, although it's something I would almost certainly have purchased when it's collected, anyway. I guess I'm back.

I'll get into Wednesday Comics soon. But let's first look at the comic from a team I do know and have followed on the Captain America collections.

The Marvels Project #1 (of 8)
Written by Ed Brubaker.
Art by Steve Epting.
Coloring by Dave Stewart
Published by Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

Brubaker's remit here seems to be something suitably grand to celebrate Marvel Comics' 70th Anniversary, something epic and episodic and somewhat adult without resorting to a lot of hero death, sodomy, rape, incest and whatever else Marvel and DC seem to like in their big event books. If the title makes you think of the Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross Marvels book from the the early '90s, that's probably not an accident. This is intended along those lines, a serious, self-contained exploration of the origins of the Marvel Universe. Mix that in with The Manhattan Project, but with FDR approving a secret mission to create superpowered soldiers rather than atomic bombs. Brubaker is a good choice for this, as he's something of a history buff and has covered WWII before in Captain America, plus he's able to depict a character like FDR with a secret agenda the public knows nothing of, without making him an over-the-top caricature. He's also a good plotter, so we start off with nicely dropped hints for old Marvel fans about the identity of a dying old man, hints about the doctor caring for him and his heroic destiny, and a bit of intrigue with a panel of recognizable but slightly different Marvel heroes of the future. We also get credible motivation for Namor the Sub-Mariner's eventual decision to focus his hatred of humanity specifically on the Third Reich, Professor Horton's fatherly feelings for the childlike android the Human Torch, and the beginnings of Nick Fury's fabled career. There aren't a lot of thrills to this opening chapter, but aside from a somewhat lazy way to get Tom Holloway into the action (four thugs see the Stewart-colored inferno of their city, the blaze inches away, and decide it's the right time to rob or rape a woman), it's a pretty strong beginning. Epting does his usual good work here--some excellent establishing shots and effective, non-flashy storytelling, though it seems he gets paid by the cheekbone. I was looking for a self-contained book I could look forward to each month, and I think I chose well.

Frankenstein's Womb
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Marek Olecksicki
Published by Avatar Press. $6.99 USD

This format, about 48 pages, cardstock cover, has historically been known as a "one-shot," but this one is labeled a "graphic novella," and perhaps to emphasize the novella-istic part of it, the artist isn't named on the outside, and it's given a painted cover by a different artist that has little to do with the story itself. Well, prose novellas have never gotten much respect, but good luck trying to make the "graphic novella" stick, I guess.

Whatever you want to call it, this is a smallish story, and there's not much plot, but the idea is intriguing. On a carriage ride to visit the castle of Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her beloved Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary's stepsister Claire (pregnant with Byron's child), stop off at Castle Frankenstein. Mary is the only one interested in seeing the inside, where she meets the inspiration for her famous novel. The unnamed creature takes her on a tour through time, to her birth and his rebirth, and into the future, while drawing several parallels between their lives. Olecksicki's work is fantastic, creepy and Gothic and with great skill at casting shadows correctly and to maximum ominous effect. This isn't a knock on Ellis' script, but it's almost a shame Olecksicki is given a story with so much talking and almost no action, because he really will shine on the next horror book he's given.

I found myself regarding Ellis somewhat tenderly and protectively here. This is not his typical stuff; it's not giving the people what they want. This one seems strictly for his own pleasure. I don't mean amusement, as there are certainly plenty of books where it's clear Ellis is having fun. What I mean is that it really feels like he holds Mary Shelley in high regard as an original thinker, and he takes pains to cite examples of how her imagination led to real inventions of the modern era, and he makes liberal use of her writings as evidence of her great intellect. Indeed, in the book she's fearless in facing what to most would be a series of hellish visions. Getting back to my tender/protective comment, the opening scene in the book, with Percy trying to shock Claire and Mary with his potty mouth and more Byronesque lewdness and cruelty, feels very self-conscious, as if Ellis is for this moment trying to draw readers in with the more typical Ellis style, so that they will be more kindly to the rest of the book, which feels more personal, a sweet but gruesome love letter to Mary. I bet a lot of Ellis fans will let this one fly under the radar (Ellis has done zombies already, who cares about Frankenstein?), and yet I would bet this one means a little more to him than a lot of what he's done for Avatar.

Christopher Allen, Aug. 12th, 2009

Please feel free to email me about reviewing a book

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Daily Breakdowns 001 - Ostrandcized

Hey, with exactly four seconds of forethought, let's re-re-relaunch my old Breakdowns comics column as a daily bit of commentary on some comics-related something or other. Well, let's call it not a relaunch but a spin-off.

Today, I was directed to an interesting kerfuffle on John Byrne's board, as comics writer Gail Simone posted about fellow writer John (Grimjack, Suicide Squad) Ostrander's failing eyesight and the charitable efforts she and other pros are making to help raise money for his medical bills. First of all, I'm not directing this towards anyone in particular, but I hope the next time someone wants to call someone a sellout for, say, giving up creator-owned work in favor of work-for-hire at Marvel or DC, they consider that for some people, a bit of security and maybe a company health plan outweighs creative freedom, you know?

Secondly, although Byrne's first few replies here are frosty, I have to come down mostly on his side on this one. That is, although he could certainly have been nicer, he's in the right: Gail should have emailed him privately before posting the notice, because it does paint him into a corner. I and most others reading that post, which mentions many other artists who have contributed work for auction to help Ostrander, would naturally read it on Byrne's board and wonder if maybe Byrne is going to contribute something. And maybe he can't or has his reasons why he won't, or maybe he chooses to give anonymously, but now he's pushed into responding to the post--to Gail as a fellow professional and to the fans who visit his message board. I think Gail Simone is a decent person, but as much as she can deny any passive aggression in posting this the way she did, she's too smart a person not to have considered the possible fallout. At least I think so. Bottom line, it's a small episode and an unfortunate distraction from a good cause.

Speaking of unfortunate medical issues, that seems to be some of the impetus for Marvelman creator Mick Anglo's selling his rights to the character to Marvel, as Rich Johnston reported yesterday at Bleeding Cool. I'm feeling better after reading this about the likelihood of the Moore and Gaiman work being reprinted, and feeling better about being excited about it. That is, without guilt, as long as Anglo and Moore and Gaiman feel reasonably well-treated. Stay tuned.

More soon, maybe even tomorrow?

Chris Allen 8/11/09

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Review: Batman - The Brave and the Bold #7

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #7
Writer: J. Torres
Artist: J. Bone
Publisher: DC Comics. $2.50 USD

I was in a comic shop yesterday for the first time in a couple years. In that time I've been strictly mail order, no floppies, but I had been curious about Wednesday Comics, so I stopped off at a not-exactly-local shop, but at least it was on my way home. Since I was there, I picked this one up for my kids, as they like the Cartoon Network show (interestingly there is no Cartoon Network logo on the cover), and hell, there are very few superhero comics I consider safe enough for kids 6 and 9.

We're half a year into the series, and I'm not sure if the Torres/Bone team is regular or if they rotate them among other creators, but it doesn't really matter. These are done-in-one stories, and like the show, they team a good-humored, often smiling Batman up with other heroes from the DC Universe, preferably ones the cartoon hasn't gotten to, one would think. This time out it's the Doom Patrol, although it's an incarnation with Beast Boy in it, who would later become Changeling in the Teen Titans. I'll have to explain that to the kids, familiar as they are with the Teen Titans cartoon. Anyway, after the usual quick, pre-credits adventure with Batman and The Olympian defeating Circe (as per the format of the show), we get into a tame mystery where Beast Boy needs Batman's help rescuing the rest of the DP--Elasti-Girl, Negative Man and Robotman. Beast Boy gets the most coverage in this issue, and he's pretty much as depicted in the Titans cartoon, visually and characteristically--prankish, juvenile but clever and brave. As Batman rescues the others, he begins to doubt the villain is their regular foe General Immortus, and it turns out he's right, as another DC second-stringer (also featured in the Titans cartoon) is shoehorned in without a whole lot of consideration of whether this is really his kind of caper. It's also a little disappointing how little space is given to the rest of the Doom Patrol and their powers and personalities. It's inoffensive, and Bone's art is fun, but Torres constructs the story with the energy and ingenuity of putting together a turkey sandwich. All the ingredients are there on the table, and yeah, it's a sandwich and it tastes fine, but there isn't much creation or artistry going on. Chomp, chomp.

A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Not Far Away

Some of you may know that I started reviewing comics at ComicBookGalaxy in the year 2000, and spent several years there on and off, working with my pal Alan David Doane as a reviewer, columnist and editor. Great fun, most of the time, and I learned a lot. But the weird thing with me (well, not THE weird thing, but one of them) is that I very rarely read any of my old stuff. Once I write it, I forget it, so I'm sure there's a lot of reviews and such that are lost. And...whatever. It's not that big a deal to me. But late last week, Alan sent me a link to Archive.org and it turns out they have a good chunk (with some frustrating gaps) of old Galaxy stuff, plus Alan has a fair amount of it saved as well. So I've been reading a lot of it and really enjoying the reminiscing, plus my memory is so faulty that often I can read an old column of my own and make myself laugh. It's also kind of inspiring--man, I sure poured a lot of hours into those columns back in those days. I was reading one today, originally at MoviePoopShoot, the Kevin Smith pop culture site I went to after CBG, and in one I not only had reviews of new comics but reviews of some Eros porn comics/graphic novels I'd received to review, and part of a multipart series looking at Matt Wagner's Grendel comics. It was really an overwhelming column, and I did that stuff every week. Of course, it helped lead to me being single again, but still, it makes me want to really kind of attack comics again with more gusto, and more double-entendres and puns. Beware!

There was a lot of good stuff produced at CBG over the years. Maybe we should try to pull some of it out of the void so people can see it again.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Box That Time Forgot, Pt. 2: Bat Lash - Guns & Roses TPB

As I mentioned in Pt. 1, I received a large, surprise package from DiscountComicBookService, basically a year's worth of graphic novels and trades I'd ordered that hadn't been filled when expected, and about which I'd forgotten. So in the hopes of trying to get through these and back into newer books, or at least the rest of the files of unread stuff I have, let's get on with it.

Bat Lash: Guns & Roses TPB
Written by Sergio Aragones and Peter Brandvold
Art by John Severin (with Steve Lieber and Javi Pina on Ch. 6)
Published by DC Comics. $17.99 USD

Let's face it: the existence of this six-part miniseries is due mainly so DC can hang onto their trademark on the character. Still, if you need to publish a new Bat Lash book, you couldn't put together a better team than Aragones, who plotted the majority of the original '60s series after his first appearance, Brandvold, an acclaimed Western novelist, and Severin, a wonderful veteran artist who in recent years has done quite a few Western comics, including Wildstorm's Desperadoes miniseries. Add other classic DC artists Nick Cardy and Walt Simonson on covers, and it seems like editors Rachel Gluckstern and Michael Wright have a better sense of history than most at DC.

The story itself is kind of an expanded origin for Bat. He's a grown man but still living on his parents' ranch, and secretly romancing the daughter of a ruthless land baron. She's also supposed to be engaged to the corrupt sheriff, while her father is trying to take over the Lash Ranch, partly out of greed and partly out of revenge that long ago, Bat's mother chose Zeke Lash rather than him. Did you get all that? That's a lot of conflict, and you would be right to predict it doesn't resolve without a good deal of bloodshed. However, this isn't a gratuitous, vicious kind of Western tale. There's real sweetness to the romance between Bat and Dominique, also echoed in the love his parents have for each other.

Severin's work here is a joy. From the opening splash page of Dominique and Bat riding through the sage, one knows they're in good hands. It's like a John Ford film on paper. It's amazing that an artist with such a light, feathery touch can still convey action and anger as well as he does.

This is quite a successful reboot, the five issues given to it a perfect length. Bat experiences a lot of hardship and heartache here, and it sets him up to be the seemingly devil-may-care, ladies' man quality for later stories, which can work perfectly well on a surface level--kind of like Jim Garner's Maverick character--or you can see that it's an armor he's assumed to cover his pain, if you've read and remembered this book. Good work. I like the idea, and we'll see how it plays out--no one involved is getting any younger--that this creative team might have a few more of these stories to tell if given the chance, but it doesn't have to be forced into a monthly book like Jonah Hex or El Diablo or other series that might have been better off in limited doses.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: Star Trek - Assignment Earth TPB

Star Trek: Assignment Earth TPB
Written and Drawn by John Byrne
Published by IDW Publishing. $19.99 USD

This came out in 2008 but I only picked it up last week because I honestly just felt like reading some John Byrne comics. I'm a fan of Star Trek, the original series, but not a fan, if you know what I'm saying. I'm not familiar with the Assignment Earth episode that was supposed to spin off into a series starring Robert Lansing and Teri Garr, but didn't, as Star Trek couldn't sustain itself much less generate spin-offs. That changed later, of course.

John Byrne is a big Star Trek fan, so one might expect this to be a perfect match, a passion project from a great comics creator who can still do fine work when engaged. So why isn't it quite a success? I'm fine with admitting I don't know; too often critics invent theories of creators phoning it in, or editors screwing with the product, or any other reason good intentions don't result in good comics.

Things don't start badly, if one ignores the dreadful chapter break pages in a dour color scheme with heavily pixilated Byrne art. The first issue/chapter briefly recaps Assignment Earth and then jumps forward three months, with Supervisor 194 Gary Seven and partner Roberta Lincoln on their next mission, to stop someone (likely a renegade scientist) from sabotaging an atomic test. That was the premise of the proposed TV series, that these two would intercede to stop mankind from destroying itself before it evolves into a peaceful society. A sweet, very '60s, very Gene Roddenberry idea, and who knows, maybe that's part of the problem, in that Byrne hasn't ventured in waters this earnest for years, maybe not since his Superman run. This first chapter is actually quite good, though, with terrific artwork and a nice turn where Seven ends up falling for the female scientist who ends up being the villain. It's a good start, as we know that despite the many devices at Seven's disposal (time travel, a talking supercomputer, a pet cat who can turn into a woman--useful, that--and a pen-sized tool that makes people complacent and forgetful), he's not foolproof and he can be wounded, at least emotionally.

The second chapter is also enjoyable, with Seven and Roberta boarding the U.S.S. Enterprise which has somehow appeared again on mid-60s Earth. Having teleported the pilot from the jet about to crash into them, Kirk and the crew (their faces never shown in this issue for some reason) are endangering Earth's timeline the more the pilot is on board this future ship unless Seven fixes things. Self-contained and enjoyable, but without a similar character moment as in the first chapter.

The third issue had a couple interesting moments, this time for Roberta, as it's the late '60s and she falls in love with an African-American peace protester, while Seven eventually uncovers the threat on campus, a crazed General developing clone soldiers. That wasn't particularly compelling, but the epilogue is good, with an older Roberta at the Vietnam Wall, mourning her long-gone love Curtis, who died in that conflict. It's too bad there isn't a little more of this. Undoubtedly, Byrne wanted to do more stories than the five here, and is probably setting up future subplots, but one wishes the character moments received a little more space that what's here.

Chapter Four's alien invasion would appear to be a little outside the premise of mankind threatening its own survival--this is an outside threat, but it's okay. Although perhaps set in a time when Vietnam was still going on and Roberta's love Curtis was still alive, it's still a little weird to see her going ga-ga over another man, or at least the handsome human imitation of one of the "nice" aliens. It's at this point I had my doubts whether Byrne had really thought through how he wanted to handle her character or making it up as he went along.

The final chapter involves Seven and Roberta in China trying to prevent a joint Russian/Chinese plot to replace President Nixon with a surgically altered double agent, and now I was wondering just how wacky Byrne was willing to get to keep this thing going for another five issues if given the chance. It's not the worst plot at all, actually kind of amusing, but the execution is just a little too pat. True, the series is based on a kitsch classic TV show, but in 2009 these stories come off as a bit too safe and lightweight. For such a lofty assignment--saving the world, over and over--it never feels like it's very challenging or difficult, and aside from a couple glimpses we're never let into these characters. It's nicely drawn and nothing to be ashamed of, but there are hundreds of other John Byrne comics I'd read again before this one.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review: Parker - The Hunter

Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter GN
Adapted and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke
Published by IDW Publishing. $24.99 USD

I don't know that I could have asked for a more perfect adaptation of Stark's (Donald Westlake's) first Parker novel. Oh, sure, I'm a grown man and I realize that if this was a relationship, it would be better if there were some surprises, some areas of mild conflict where our tectonic plates could cause friction with each other, some areas of mystery we could explore as our hair turned gray and our skin lined and coarse. That's great for longterm happiness. But in terms of, say, a testicularly challenging weekend, a brief but shattering fling you'll remember at odd moments until someone's changing your Depends and your memories are all but gone, then this book is like that.

Every thing about this book screams 1962 right down to the jacket and even the asymetrical boxes around the author bios, and it's a loving scream. There's nothing camp or kitsch about Cooke's approach--he loves this era and he's determined to bring it back to life. It's kind of a wonderful thing, the imagination--the author photo outs Westlake as a pencilneck who probably never even shoplifted, Cooke is a Canadian, where there's absolutely no history of crime fiction much less mobsterism, and the non-Italian "syndicate/outfit/organization" is pure fantasy, and yet this reads as an authentic thriller, albeit one with more of a superhero bent. We have no doubt that Parker is going to get his way, it's just a matter of how many men he will have to kill along the way.

Cooke finds the right style from the start and his joy at recreating this world is palpable. The black-and-white with the cold blue--what could work better? Any ideas? Not me. Sure, it might be a little better if Parker had more of a distinctive face--Westlake always pictured Jack Palance. Cooke goes for more of a generic, handsome-but-dangerous mug for Parker, and it works fine, but you don't remember his face afterward. But on the plus side, you remember a number of great touches, such as the break in format to show the map of his travels, or the leafy shadows on Parker's wife's face, foreshadowing the post-mortem he's going to give that face with his knife. It's a shocking book, even 40+ years later, but the shocks are delayed because the plot moves so quickly, inexorably. As much as I love John Boorman's film adaptation, Point Blank, with its strange editing and black humor, it's great to get the unadulterated jolt of the original story here. And I don't know the other Parker stories at all, so I'm even more excited about the further Cooke adaptations to come.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Box That Time Forgot, Pt. 1: The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack

Last week, I drove home and as I passed my front door, I saw a large cardboard box. Now, I haven't received a package this size for a good six months--ever since I stopped ordering from DiscountComicBookService. The reason has nothing to do with them--they do a fine job at heavily discounted prices. The problem is that in this economy, and with a mortgage, two kids in various sports, bills, and all the other stuff the average parent spends money on (let's not forget beer), I realized I had to cut back on the heavy preorders. I basically had to force myself not to pay attention to the Diamond catalog and all the tasty treats coming out, and just read other reviews and trust friends, and maybe Amazon.com recommendations, for the good stuff coming out. And it's worked out pretty well, actually. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and actual dread that I saw that package, with the telltale blue Diamond logo on the side, because I was worried about some unforeseen expense.

As it turns out, this was all stuff for which I'd already paid. Not only that, the books within were all ordered quite some time ago, from almost a year ago, August 2008, up to about March 2009 (publishing date, so I wouldn't ordered it in January). Once I determined there was no new credit card charge (the total for these books is $147, which would have been a very light month in the "old days"), I was glad to have them, but looking at them now, in my current financial situation (not really that different but I'm just a bit more awake now), it strikes me that many of the books I would probably choose not to order today. And of course, it's not like I even noticed I didn't receive them before.

And no, I'm not sure why DCBS took so long to fill these various orders. I can only assume they were letting them pile up in a Chris Allen bin, waiting to add them to a new order that never came, and finally someone decided to just ship them and free up the space, or something.

So without further adieu, let's get on with the first one I read. After this, we'll just keep going with the normal reviews.

The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack
By Nicholas Gurewitch

The Perry Bible Fellowship began as a college newspaper strip, then went on to newspaper syndication, and its final resting place appears to be an online archive. I say final tentatively, but for the time-being it appears that Gurewitch is not doing new strips, and the website references two film scripts he cowrote. Indeed, that bit of news shouldn't be too surprising to readers of the strip or this book--especially this book--as the roughly eight years of strips within represent a restless creative spirit and growing ambition. The earliesst strips are crudely drawn, and the gags are often just as crude, though funny--lots of penis envy, sex, death, and the cruelty of the universe and/or humanity, that humanity often represented as white shapes with dot eyes and a simple line for a mouth.

Gurewitch sticks with these themes, and even the rudimentary people, as his work goes on, but he keeps growing as an artist: what looks like some charcoal etching on page 47, computer tones on 49, and from about 82 on, the coloring becomes more lush (and often in beautiful pastels like children's books to better contrast with the dark humor) and the drawing more painstakingly detailed. Gurewitch's themes are the same but he finds more ways to express them, getting further into absurdity (human figures with everyday objects like rolled coins or scissors become a recurring motif), and he looks further from the everyday world and anthropomorphism into mythology and popular culture. Could an M&M (Colonel Sweeto) be a double agent? Is that Neptune or just a pedophile? How could button-eyed Raggedy Andy be a peeping Tom? Sometimes the grind of the regular strip means that Gurewitch offers up something as easy as a variation on the much-parodied Babe Ruth Story scene where Babe has to hit a home run for the sick kid in the hospital, or a particularly unrewarding series with '30s gangster movie characters, but more often than not, Gurewitch brings the goods, and even when the gag isn't that great, the art often saves it (plus he delivers some killer parodies of Edward Gorey, R. Crumb and Shel Silverstein). Page 166 on, or about the last fourth of the book, thankfully represents the highest ratio of winners to not-so-much, so the reader can go out on a high note. Afterwards, there is a thoughtful interview with Gurewitch on his creative process and other matters, as well as a selection of orphaned cartoons, ones finished but not published, for various reasons as described by Gurewitch (too soon after 9/11, too wordy, not funny enough, bad premise, etc.).

As consumers/readers/fans, we too often want an artist to keep giving us the more of the same. Certainly Gurewitch is a first rate gag cartoonist, and more of the same would be welcome. But he's such a good artist, and with such a fertile mind, that anything he chooses to explore is probably going to be pretty interesting.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Justice League - That Was Now, This Is Then TPB

Justice League: That Was Now, This Is Then TPB
Written by Roger Stern
Pencils by John Byrne
Inks by Mark Farmer
Published by DC Comics. $14.99 USD

Look, in a few weeks I'll be 40. What does that have to do with a Justice League Classified stand-alone story from a couple comics veterans, neither of whom are currently working on a regular series? Well, the older I get, the more I appreciate creative people who persevere. It could be a Neil Young, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. Maybe a John Malkovitch or Woody Allen. Maybe their best work is behind them. Maybe they have another masterpiece or small, glittering gem in them. Maybe they just have craft and professionalism left to offer. And, you know, viewing work through the gauzy filter of nostalgia can be really deadly for a critic. But by the same token, we're only the sum of our influences--what we grew up liking and not liking. I like John Byrne's work a lot, and always have. Not that there isn't stuff I haven't liked, just that I think he's a terrific artist and frequently good writer. And I've always hewn more toward the European type of criticism, that celebrates an artist's body of work and gives each step of the journey respect, even if it's a misstep.

That sounds like a set-up for a negative review, but this is not a bad book. The story bounces back and forth between a young Justice League, with the Barry Allen Flash and Hal Jordan Green Lantern, and Superman and Batman not yet fulltime members, and the more current crew (basically the same members as the Justice League cartoon from a few years back). After a clunky opening with the modern League (does anyone think The Flash would ever make a joke about his speed being "like a flash"?), a mysterious alien attacks them, putting Martian Manhunter into a coma, injuring John Stewart and sending Wally West hurtling back through time. The story then starts to ping-pong eras, as the first League fights a would-be alien conqueror named Titus, an ugly Goliath who looks a bit like Kalibak from Kirby's Fourth World.

Stern creates a sturdy plot, made a little more interesting with the nonlinear storytelling, as the modern League start to figure out that they're fighting a changed Titus again, and trying to figure out how to defeat him. He never gets inside the characters to surprise us, but the goal here seems to be just to get them right, and in that he's successful. Plus, he's careful to give every hero something important to do or some way to shine, including the Atom, who perhaps gets the most action here, maybe because Stern used to write the character's solo series. Sure, Green Arrow never gets to fire an arrow (unless you count firing missiles from a jet, which I don't), but you can't have everything. While the story doesn't reach too far above charming and competent, it does have some qualities to it that are positively radical compared to most of the superhero comics published these days. This one is tightly plotted, not particularly graphic or verbose, and the heroes all get along and don't have any bloodlust.

Byrne's art is a bit restrained, possibly due to the quick pacing of the story. There doesn't seem to be many opportunities for him to show off something really gorgeous, even in service of the story. His Superman looks quite different from when he used to draw him, but hey, that was 20 years ago, and artists keep growing. By and large, the characters all looked good, if a little less consistent from panel to panel as most Byrne work. Not sure how much of that has to do with Farmer's inks. I don't recalll Farmer having much experience inking Byrne, but Byrne's pencils are usually so detailed and complete that interpretation should be minimal. All I know is there were a couple times the faces looked quite ugly, but most of the art was good if not top tier Byrne work. I didn't care for the covers in this case, not because most weren't good but because the artist who did them had a style so different from Byrne's it ended up being distracting.

Overall, an enjoyable, old school superhero team comic from a pair who still know how to do them. Soundly constructed and safe for all ages.

SDCC Comments - Bob Shreck at IDW

Just a quick note. I've been somewhat critical of Bob Schreck in the past, at least once he got to DC. Rightly or wrongly, out-of-control projects under his watch like Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Back led to my perception that as an editor, he let the talent run free too much. But what the hell, he did some great things at Oni Press and Dark Horse, so I think this is a good move for IDW for a couple reasons.

First, IDW is the hottest comics publisher going right now. And as Schreck was considered one of the hipper editors at DC (which I know is not that big a deal), his departure only makes IDW look that much cooler.

The second reason is that Schreck has some big name talent in his Blackberry, and if any of them have projects that don't fit Marvel or DC, IDW is the next place to go. Great production, good editorial, and they're forward-thinking, with comics on iTunes and such. I wouldn't be surprised if his move didn't already come with a semi-firm commitment from a big name or two for something. Should be fun to watch.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: Asterios Polyp

Asterios Polyp
By David Mazzucchelli
Published by Pantheon Books. $29.95 USD

Asterios Polyp is a character almost as singular as his name. He's a well-respected paper architect, meaning his designs have never been built, and he's a bestselling author of books of architectural theory. There are a few famous living architects, but not many. David Mazzucchelli is a well-respected comics artist, known more by superhero comics readers for Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, or by art comics readers for Rubber Blanket or as the illustrator for the graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass. What makes Mazzucchelli unusual is that aside from some short pieces, the work above covers just about everything he's done in comics in the past twenty-odd years. He's extremely selective, plus he has spent time teaching and working at his art outside of paid work. Comics artists really tend to "grow up," artistically, in public.

In other words, he has a great deal of credibility, so when he writes and draws his first graphic novel, it is a real event. And Mazzucchelli is up for the task. The story of Asterios getting thrown from his routine, first by a failed marriage and then by the loss of his apartment, sets him on the road of discovery, where hopefully he will get over himself and grow up, with the help of new friends and a task or two that will call for him to be more giving, less selfish. It's a story told countless times, and to be honest, although the bare bones of it resemble an independent film, what Mazzucchelli brings to it is pure comics mastery, a display of numerous formal devices that fortunately come off joyful and playful rather than pretentious or showy.

It might be fun to try to list all the "tricks" Mazzucchelli uses here, but let's just cover a few. There are larger-than-life, symbolic character names--Ursula Major is a big woman, maybe a little bearish but probably closer to the Earth Mother type; Asterios' wife Hana (Japanese for flower) blossoms during their marriage. Visually, she (and her artistic style, for she's a sculptor) is all curves and soft lines, whereas Asterios favors hard edges and is rigid in his opinions. His design is terrific--his head is shaped like a nail or railroad spike It's also notable that he's mostly seen in profile, which can have to do with him being both one-sided and half a person, as he lost his twin brother at birth. There are also masterful depictions of how people see things differently. It's also interesting for longtime fans that at no point is Mazzucchelli's art ever like his old, famous style(s). It might take a few pages to get used to, but he's so good, it shouldn't matter.

Mazzucchelli does a fine job not losing focus for long on Asterios' marriage, frequently flashing back to the mistakes he makes, some of which aren't seen to be mistakes until later. I appreciated this element, especially as a divorced man myself, because of course if we all had our own movies or books showing scenes from our marriage, we would probably see a lot of choices that seemed fine at the time, but weren't. If Mazzucchelli hadn't spent as much time with these scenes, or had Asterios embark on a new romance, the novel would really have lost its emotional heft.

Some might complain about the character names, which are exaggerated enough to be a little distracting and possibly undercut the seriousness of the work, but to me they were a good choice, because the work doesn't suffer, anymore than Kurt Vonnegut's novels suffered from silly character names. My one complaint is more to do with the plotting, in that while this is developed enough to be able to call it a graphic novel without any embarrassment, there really weren't any complications. Asterios finds his new friends, who will give him work, shelter, advice and purpose, right away, and nothing stands in his way. Eventually, having achieved a small goal (symbolically sound, if a little pat), he heads off to achieve his big goal, and although its left somewhat ambiguous, it seems he makes a very good start. So, while this isn't quite a masterpiece, it's really, really good, easily one of the best graphic novels of the year, and it's so full of visual wit it will reward multiple readings.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear Omnibus Vol. One

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear Omnibus Volume One
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev, with David Mack and Various.
Published by Marvel Comics. $99.99 USD

Brian Michael Bendis grew up on Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's Daredevil, which is the most celebrated run of the book (followed by some other Miller-written runs). Fortunately, Bendis takes the correct approach in being inspired to come up with his own take on Daredevil rather than trying to deliver some sort of homage to Miller/Janson. Miller's Matt Murdock/Daredevil was fearless, yes, but led by his heart and often confused by the machinations of others around him. Bendis' version is quite different, though one can understand him as possibly the same character after more years of experience and heartbreak. Indeed, an idea floated around by his friends is that he had a type of nervous breakdown after first girlfriend Karen Page was killed. Kind of a stretch, really, but the motivations aren't that important. What's important is that this Daredevil is not only crafty, he's audacious, no longer just a bit careless with his secret identity but now essentially taunting everyone--lawbreakers and the media--to take action. Just as Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man worked best when you could feel Bendis revisiting awkward adolescence through Peter Parker, Daredevil works best when it's the adult Bendis at his most confident, constantly trying to one-up not only past writers but himself, with one surprising development after another, and significantly, many of the surprising moments are from Murdock rather than him having to just react to them.

To back up a bit, the first storyline in here, "Wake Up," though it was acclaimed for the time and helped land Bendis the regular gig, is actually one of his weaker efforts. It might have been a joy to produce, as his artist on this story was old friend David Mack, but it's basically four issues of reporter Ben Urich talking to a traumatized kid until he finally figures out that his anger towards Daredevil was really misdirected anger and shame about his dad, third-rate DD enemy Leapfrog. Now, as Leapfrog had a criminal record, it probably wouldn't have taken much investigation to learn his identity and focus on that right away, but you know, we have comics to sell, and David Mack likes to draw big pictures. Bendis writes Urich well, but that's about it, and it's just as well he does, as Urich is the only real connective tissue between this story and the rest of the stories in this volume, which are a smoothly flowing piece aside from a two issue bit of courtroom nonsense involving forgotten '70s Marvel hero The White Tiger being falsely accused of murder. It's a chance to give Maleev a break from art, and I suppose it serves the purpose of giving Luke Cage a reason to start mistrusting Matt Murdock, which would play out more later, but it's mostly a dead end for Bendis and the book. Again, the book works the best when Bendis is able to meld his shocking, fan fiction-type story ideas (Kingpin killed? By his son? Kingpin's wife kills son? DD declares himself new Kingpin! Murdock marries blind girl!) with strong, naturalistic dialogue and an overwhelming sense of confidence that everything has been thought out well and will all fit together. It helps that Maleev is around for most of this, as that not only lends continuity to the twists and turns of the book, but Maleev's photorealistic style is well-suited to the blood-spattered street stories Bendis is telling. That isn't to say I'm a huge fan of Maleev--looking at the work now, years on, I realize I actually don't like the way he draws Daredevil very well. But that's okay--it's not inappropriate that one looks at DD here with some measure of repulsion. He's basically kind of crazy here. He does a nice job with new girlfriend Milla, as she's obviously based on a real person, and as a kind of comics in-joke, Bendis' own bald mug is the basis for the Kingpin. The late, great syndicated columnist Mike Royko is clearly the inspiration for Urich, which is so fitting one wonders if it has been done before. Bendis will have to put his toys back in the box by the time the eventual second volume wraps up his run, but what's here is passionate, surprising work that holds up quite well.

Bonus features for this Omnibus are the same material used for the previous, smaller hardcovers: some interviews and introductions, some Maleev sketchbook material, and a piece from Bendis explaining his joy at lining up some past DD greats for a DD/Kingpin fight sequence, including John Romita, Sr., Gene Colan, Lee Weeks, Klaus Janson and Bill Sienkiewicz.

Busiek Blog

This is just what I want from a comics writer's blog. Lots of visuals, inside-baseball stuff, humor, charm, and it's frequently updated. Even the plugs are self-deprecating. Good job, Kurt.

Movies In Brief

I guess I'm in a period of watching a fair amount of dvds/blu-rays lately, catching up on some things I didn't see in the theater.

Defiance - in terms of lives saved, a story on par with Schindler's List, but Ed Zwick is no Spielberg. It's a well-made film with decent performances from Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber (here playing almost the same type of sibling rivalry beats as he did in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, funnily enough), but quite predictable. Aside from a stylish scene with Schreiber invading a Nazi-captured police station in order to get medicine for his people in the forest, there isn't a lot of bravura filmmaking here. The bonus feature on the real brothers through interviews with children and grandchildren is only about half an hour and more interesting than the actual film.

My Best Friend's Girl - the first film I've seen with Dane Cook in it. His motorboat vulgarity is repellent at first but it turns out he's not a bad actor and can become more likeable as the script demands. He's probably a little more natural than Jason Biggs, all nerdy tics in the friend role. Kate Hudson, I have to say, is effortlessly charming. The most enjoyable part of the movie is where Cook is trying to offend her and she sees right through it and is just amused. Alec Baldwin has fun as Cook's fat, womanizing dad.

Role Models - Kind of a sleeper film that should have done a little better. My guess is that part of the reason for that is that, A) the Paul Rudd audience is different than the Seann William Scott audience, or at least the presence of one creates different expectations than the presence of the other, or B) it was advertised as a new, raunchy guy's movie but is instead a lot closer to Meatballs, except with two guys and two boys. I saw the "unrated" version but there wasn't anything special there, maybe more swearing? Elizabeth Banks is good in a small role, and Jane Lynch is always funny. Rudd, who had something to do with the story, is another variation on his uptight, cynical character, while Scott is the frat boy you would expect. It's actually pretty sweet. Lots of outtakes, bloopers and extended scenes, including a couple with Rashida Jones as a Chuck E Cheese-type employee in a chipmunk suit. I can see why the scenes were cut but I always like seeing her.

Quantum of Solace - as much as I liked Licence to Kill, not-great reviews of this one kept me from seeing it in the theater, and they're right. A slick, professional job, with some very good action scenes, but the main villain (a seeming ecologist/philanthropist named GREENE who secretly helps overturn governments with the help of secret organization Quantum and wants to take over the water supply of Bolivia, or something) is just a nerd who somehow gives Bond a good fight at the end. Craig is fine, Olga Kurylenko is stunning, but director Marc Forster doesn't do much to convince us Quantum is as pervasive and scary a threat as he should, nor do even the actors seem very worried about either Greene or that Bond has apparently gone rogue in his quest for revenge. Nice idea to have him still hurting over Vesper Lynd's death in Licence, but they don't really bring that idea, or any ideas, to life.

Wanted - a much more entertaining action film, based on the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones graphic novel, but done a little better. James McAvoy is well-cast--slight and able to portray frail but then tough as the story progresses. Angelina Jolie is bigger than life and well-cast as part of the sexbait to get McAvoy into The Fraternity of Assassins, though it seemed like they should have fucked at some point. After seeing Wolverine, I'm thinking they should have cast some bigger actors as the other assassins, but whatever. They kept a lot of the humor of the comic, even some of the narration, but come up with some great action sequences (including the preposterous but fun bullet-bending) to make it surpass the book.

The Reader - wow, I was really disappointed. High pedigree talent in Winslet, director Daldry, cinematographer Deakins, screenwriter Hare, but I just was not pulled into this one. I found Winslet's character really repulsive even before the revelation that she was a Nazi. Prior to that, she was an unfeeling bitch using the young man sexually, but casting such a spell over him (being his first love) that he later tries to help save her during a war crime trial. Hinging her fate on the plot device that she never learned to read seemed pretty thin to me, actually, especially as not much was really made of why she wanted this young man to read to her in the first place. Also, I frankly thought Daldry had Winslet nude when it often wasn't necessary. I actually found the movie gratuitous, tedious and the feel of it was so concerned with being an important, controversial film that to me it just exposed how shallow it really was.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Bleeding Cool

I received an email from erstwhile Comic Book Resources rumourmonger Rich Johnston, inviting me to check out "his" new blogsite, Bleeding Cool, and share my thoughts. For the record, I've met Rich once before, like him and his work, and wish him nothing but the best. That said, I was underwhelmed with the site, but it's not past fixing.

Now, putting aside the fact that none of the stories mentioned in the email were easily found on the site, due to constant updating with other little newsbits and rumours, the design of the site itself is fairly pedestrian. It's not ugly (like CBR), but it's also no different than one might have seen at the start of this decade. I'm not terribly concerned about site design, but when you call something Bleeding Cool, you're asking for a touch more scrutiny on that front.

So the "bleeding cool" part must be the content? Well, while Rich is as good as it gets as far as coming up with the skinny on comics industry happenings, I think the strength of his column, Lying in the Gutters, had something to do with being a lot of short pieces all together, with a bit of structure and rhythm to it. What he's doing here is putting up a new item every time it's written, which I understand is meant to convey that something is always changing on the site, but unfortunately it also serves to put more pressure on each piece. And they're okay, but so far lacking some of the detail and quotes of some of his better pieces. It's tough, starting a site, because one feels a real urge to try to fill every corner with Content! Content! Content! all the time, and that sometimes overtakes the quality. Also, Rich has broken out regular Gutters features like Swipe File into their own separate thing, alongside "Manchild," which seems to be about adult men buying toys, speculating on comics, etc., and Celebrity Comix Pullbox, a misleading feature which imagines what comics might appeal to people like David Bowie or recent Britain's Got Talent sensation Susan Boyle.

The regular columns are written by comics (and other media) writers Warren Ellis and Adi Tantimedh. Ellis' first Do Anything column didn't get up to much besides some Thompsonesque grumbling and colorful imagery, but it's good fun. Tantimedh starts his column out as a kind of mission statement, where over the rest of the columns he'll apparently be looking at how comics properties are turned into movies, promising looks at a couple recent ones next time. And that's cool, I'm there. But I have to say, I always think it's risky to start out small, with the first column being "here's what I'm going to do...next time." For a lot of readers, unfortunately, they may not give you a next time. You have to give them a little more at the start. Tantimedh's a good writer, and I remember his work back to some short stories recommended in old Steven Grant columns, but I would probably have made the intro a little shorter and then dove into one of the movies, maybe getting through half or a third of it and then doing the rest in the next column, giving people enough here but also a reason to come back.

Earlier, I put scare quotes around "his," and what I meant is that it turns out Avatar Publishing (one of Ellis' publishing homes), owns the site. And that's fine; there aren't too many comics sites and blogs that don't have some sort of publisher advertising, and the journalistic line is easy to blur in those cases. Which is why you get non-critic Rich giving a sort of review of Ellis' Avatar book, Anna Mercury, in such a way that it's hard to tell if he really liked it or was just compelled to be as nice as possible. And the book may be great; I'm just saying it's a tough position to be in, and I would think Rich knows that some people will take his reviews and any other comments on Avatar with a grain of salt now, given that he's now being compensated by them.

So what do I think of the site? Well, it's okay. I imagine people who like what Rich does will easily follow him over here. He's the lead writer but his strength is in coming up with items, not necessarily having a strong voice to build a site around. Ellis has that voice but he's so far not writing anything he wasn't doing ten years ago, and anyway he's busy writing fiction and/or has other forums to really let loose or take over. Tantimedh's column is the only thing a little different on the comics blog landscape, in that he's got experience in both comics and film, but isn't that well-known in either and can probably afford to be a little more candid. We'll see. The Bleeding Cool part is still a bit of an irritant, in that for all their strengths these guys aren't bleeding cool/cutting edge anything. These are all guys somewhere around 40, right? There's nothing radical or edgy going on here, so maybe it's best to just sort of ignore the name and just hope that things progress and gel as the weeks go by, columns hit a rhythm, maybe more features are attempted and others dropped, maybe a new voice or two is added. Hell, I wrote for a MoviePoopShoot.com years ago, so maybe I shouldn't be so hung up on Bleeding Cool. Good luck to them.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Up Without People

Heading into another busy time at work, and guess what? I've been writing as well, so not as much time for blogging. Also sort of dating someone, and fucking generally beats blogging. So just some quick thoughts.

Star Trek - One nice thing about dating is I'm going to the movies more. I used to watch old Star Trek reruns with my mom, and occasionally her (late) best friend Diane if she was visiting. We also had a regular thing with old Nigel Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies. Anyway, I was never too obsessive about 'Trek, but I remember Christopher Pike and tribbles and that lasagna monster thing. The new movie looked cool and J.J. Abrams has a pretty good track record with me, so what the hell. And it was really good. I was actually kind of moved by the senior Kirk's sacrifice, and Chris Pine's Kirk is just the right combo of swagger and actual competence and bravery. Zachary Quinto's Spock takes on the human vs. alien personality conflict better than that character probably ever has before, and with a bit of romance, too. While as characters there's not much to Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, Bones and Chekhov--especially since having Spock and Kirk as co-male leads is tricky and enough of a time-eater as it is--at least the supporting cast are all written so as to be intrinsic to either the Kirk or Spock stories. They all get to be an important part of their first great adventure. Kind of liked that it was a Romulan rather than Klingon menace for the first one as well. And how great was it that Leonard Nimoy got so much more than just a cameo--he gets to do some of his best acting of his career.

Dwayne McDuffie - I guess I shouldn't be surprised when comics fans are outraged at absolutely normal, everyday business decisions. I remember a month or so reading one of McDuffie's comments about how he didn't enjoy writing JLA and that he was forced to rewrite some dialogue at the last minute due to editorial fiat and he wasn't happy about it. And at the time, I thought, Well, he'll be off the book soon, because a) his comments make DC editorial look dumb in public and b) clearly he wants to be off the book, anyway. That he apparently made many more such comments over the past few months makes DC look dumb in a different way--why put up with this public complaining for so long? Nothing against McDuffie, and it's not like I want him to lose work. But to me, he was really asking to be put out of his misery and I have no doubt this was no surprise to him at all. By all means, say what you want, but when you makes those comments in public about your employer, there can be consequences, and certainly a guy like McDuffie, who's worked for many comics companies and WB Animation and other corporations knows the score.

Up! - Does this movie have an exclamation point or not? This is the new Pixar film, and while they've got an incredibly high batting average for quality films, I confess the previews for this one didn't absolutely grab me. The old guy with the floating house and the Boy Scout stowaway--okay, that's funny, but then what? What's with the big, rainbow-colored bird? The evil, Kirk Douglas-looking guy in the airship? Well, I can now say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, or more importantly, the stuff that can't be shown in a short preview is what really makes the movie special. For while it's typically well-animated and funny and sweet, what really got me was how well the characters fit together. As in, they all need each other. The old guy, Carl, lost his wife, a childhood sweetheart seen in a lovely opening scene and then through a gorgeous montage of their life together. You really feel for the guy, especially as he's voiced by Ed Asner, an actor I've liked pretty much my whole life. The fact he's cast in this, when obviously Ed Asner's dance card isn't exactly full these days, is a clue that the filmmakers here have a story to tell about how we treat our elderly. And bless them for not making it gross or cutesy--there's a real moment of horror when Carl takes his curmudgeonliness a step too far and actually hurts someone, and you realize how quickly things can turn for a person, especially when there's no one to stand up and defend them.

But that's not all the movie is about. It's about father figures, and keeping promises, and knowing that sometimes it's better and more important to help someone else than keep an old promise. In some ways, the filmmaker's have it easy here. With animation, it's pretty easy to make a cute dog suddenly pathetic, and especially when he can talk. That's a can't miss. And what's not to like about a pudgy, never say die Scout with an absentee father? Or a mother bird missing her babies? When one writes it out like that, it seems almost cynically put together, and yet it really is warm and winning.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Batman: Gotham County Line TPB

Batman: Gotham County Line TPB
Written By Steve Niles
Art by Scott Hampton
Published By DC Comics. $17.99 USD

Writer Niles starts with a basically good, "why didn't anyone think of this first?" premise: have Batman work on a case outside the city limits of Gotham. From there it's a little bit Hot Fuzz, a little bit Shaun of the Dead. Small town, they do things differently, resent the intrusion of know-it-all Batman, etc. But it's a gruesome murder and the police are out of their depth. Once we find out one of the detectives is behind the murders, and continues to bedevil Batman even after a successful suicide by hanging, is when it plays to the strengths of both Niles and Hampton, both more comfortable with the macabre than typical superhero stuff.

And it's reasonably diverting, but the gimmick that Batman is trapped in a world of the killer's devising, where the dead are very active threats, doesn't quite come together. It seems like Niles just uses it whichever way works best for the moment, and luckily Deadman, and later, Phanton Stranger, are around to help coach Batman through it. Both guest stars definitely serve a purpose in the story, but not a very organic one. It never feels like Niles really had an itch to write either character or had anything to say with them, it's just that he needed some mystical types to help Batman, and the reader, make sense of what was happening, and so he choose them from among several other DC characters who would have sufficed.

Niles writes a very standard, confident, terse Batman, which is fine. When he deviates from the model it's only with actions, such as having Batman use a jetpack frequently to move around the small town. Kind of odd, but no harm done. Less defensible was his use of dead Jason Todd and Bruce Wayne's parents. Their appearances are kind of cheap and unearned, and what reason would there be by now to continue to draw the Waynes in '20s clothes?

While there's never any real suspense, or point, it's creepy enough to look at and fairly entertaining. Not a highlight in anyone's careers but neither should anyone regret their efforts here, either.

[Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Allen, All Rights Reserved. Site design by Alan David Doane]

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