Lunch Hour Comix #1
By Robert Ullman
Published by Alternative Comics; $4.95 USD

Only once or twice a year does my wife, who each week patiently sits through my excited presentation of new comics, actually grab and read, cover to cover, a comic book before I do. Such was the case with Lunch Hour Comix, Robert Ullman’s riff on James Kochalka’s Sketchbook Diaries. In much the same format, a comic diary with 3-5 panel strips, written and drawn in under an hour, Ullman demonstrates he has both a self-deprecating wit and a charming eye for detail. Standouts in this collection, which sporadically span the first eleven months of 2004, include Ullman and his wife purchasing a home, his ongoing struggles with cartooning, and reactions both pre and post election. However many of the strips deal with the more mundane aspects of everyday life, like replacing faucets, watching hockey, trading in old record albums or people who refuse to clean up after their dogs (a personal pet peeve of mine). My wife was particularly affected by “the seagull” strip, which even Ullman himself described as “easily the grossest thing I’ve ever seen.” Overall, this is an outstanding collection of honest cartooning, and a “must buy” for fans of autobiographical comics. Grade 4/5

Or Else #1
By Kevin Huizenga
Published by Drawn and Quarterly; $3.50 USD

My first exposure to Kevin Huizenga’s work was through the eyes of his protagonist Glenn Ganges in the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase Book One. His simple, yet striking artwork fit perfectly into the D&Q house style and his ability to evoke the loneliness and longing of small town America left me breathless with anticipation. With the release of Or Else, Huizenga joins an elite group of cartoonists. Like Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve, Or Else is a series of short, slice of life portraits. The standout story, “NST ’04,” is a meandering tale of life in a small town where Glenn Ganges finds himself in a complex, non-sexual relationship with a woman. They spend time exploring cemeteries, socializing at the local diner (named after cartoonist Ben Katchor), discussing obscure music, and even taking midnight bike rides, but throughout all of these activities, there is a yearning for something more, a feeling of restlessness. Huizenga’s heavily crosshatched artwork beautifully captures the shadows that haunt this story. “Chan Woo Kim,” the book’s other significant work, is the portrait of an abandoned child whose text is taken straight from actual adoption papers. While it was an interesting idea, the visuals accompanying the text were monotonous (though undeniably beautiful), repeatedly evoking the serenity of a countryside with rolling hills, still ponds and waterfalls. The wistfulness of the art in this piece shows Huizenga’s ability to create a visual mood (gray tones are expertly used to blend fog and clouds across the panels), but unlike Tomine’s early stories, there is no sense of closure or emotional impact. Still, in the end, Or Else was a satisfying work, with an art style that seems part Chris Ware, part Joe Matt, and even a little Herge influence mixed in. Huizenga is a creator with considerable promise and Or Else is the strongest debut from D&Q in years. Grade 4.5/5

The Authority: Revolution #1-3
By Ed Brubaker, Dustin Nguyen and Richard Friend
Published by DC/Wildstorm; $2.95 USD each

Like many, I haven’t read an issue of The Authority since the fourth trade paperback collecting Millar and Quitely’s final story arc. But with Ed Brubaker, one of corporate comics' few consistently entertaining writers signing on, I decided to see if the property still had any life to it (though, curiously, I could not muster similar excitement for yet another Captain America revamp). The Authority has taken over the world, undermining governments and promoting their own liberal agenda. However, the American people are distrustful and with the help of some generically named bad guys (Johnny Rocketman, Maiden America, etc.), a groundswell of revolution takes hold and the requisite comic book battles ensue. The story so far seems surprisingly ordinary. If you’ve seen the Terminator movies, you get the idea. Honestly, I had hoped Brubaker would explore the relationship between Apollo and Midnighter more, which was always the most interesting character dynamic of the original series. Dustin Nguyen’s art is capable, if uninspiring, and compels the story forward, but his characters sometimes look awkward, with overly angular features, particularly in facial close-ups. Perhaps he just has the misfortune of following two of the greatest comic artists, Bryan Hitch and Frank Quitely, on a title that was largely their vision. I’ll probably ride this out for another couple issues to see if it goes anywhere, but so far, this is far from Brubaker’s best work. Grade: 3/5

Trigger #1
By Jason Hall and John Watkiss
Published by DC Comics; $2.95 USD

Reviewing a first issue is like reviewing an album after listening to only the first song. Still, the serialized nature of comics necessitates that each chapter draw readers in and compel them to continue buying subsequent issues. The first issue of Trigger, while not overwhelming, certainly drew me in. Actually, it was far better than it looked when I flipped through it at the shop. Crime fiction writer Carter Lennox is frustrated with a society crushed by censorship until his nightmares and a chance encounter lead him to Deirdre Myers, an investigative reporter for one of the few independent newspapers left. After initially doubting Myers suspicions of Ethicorp, the single Orwellian corporation who is literally watching everyone, Carter stumbles onto a crime scene, where an Ethicorp “trigger” (a covert assassin in the same vein as Judge Dredd), is in the process of executing a criminal. The strength of the story thus far lies primarily with the strong narrator voice of Carter Lennox, whose crime fiction from the opening scene mirrors the events of his life by the close of the book. John Watkiss’s dark moody art reminds me of a cross between John Cassady and Howard Chaykin, though never quite rises to the level of either. Despite the somewhat ugly cover, the interior art is an improvement, shifting camera angles effectively to enhance some of the extended talking scenes. It will be interesting to see where this title goes, as Hall writes in the On The Ledge column, “There is more going on beneath the surface than you could possibly imagine – and what you think you know is nothing more than prologue.” It’s a bold promise but out of the gate, Trigger seems to be headed in the right direction, and with Hall’s past works, including the acclaimed Pistolwhip graphic novels from Top Shelf under his belt, this is a writer who has proven he can deliver a quality story. Grade: 4/5

Ex Machina #1-5
By Brian Vaughan, Tony Harris and Tom Feister
Published by DC/Wildstorm, $2.95 USD each

I finally read the first story arc from this highly acclaimed series, and there is no question that the praise is well deserved. As a resident of Queens myself, Vaughan’s portrayal of the inner workings of New York City are both authentic and familiar. The Mayor’s struggles balancing public transportation, trash disposal, offensive public art, and crime at the same time give this book a realistic tone that, Astro City excluded, is unheard of in the superhero genre. Mitchell Hundred is an instantly likeable and believable character - a reluctant superhero whose commitment to public service has convinced him that he must only use his powers in a crisis. It is a brilliant and original variation on what is a mostly stagnant genre. I have not seen Tony Harris since his work on Starman with James Robinson in the early nineties, but he has clearly improved upon what was already a very distinctive artistic style. Every character, from the main players to the nameless faces of New York City are both clearly rendered and beautifully imagined. My only complaint is that the coloring seemed at times to blur or distort the artwork for the worse. But the real strength of Ex Machina, as in Vaughan’s other success Y: The Last Man, is that he assumes a certain intelligence in his readers that most comic writers do not. In this case, Vaughan assumes his readers are politically aware, and takes his inspiration from the headlines, regardless of who he might offend. Grade 4.5/5

Diary of a Teenage Girl
By Phoebe Gloeckner
Published by Frog Ltd; $22.95 USD

This is on just about everyone’s Top 100 list, so I finally decided to give it a read. Minnie Goetze is a troubled fifteen year old, the victim of sexual advances from her mother’s boyfriend. However, rather than slip into clichéd anger or obsessive jealousy, Gloeckner portrays the moral ambiguity, confusion and frustration that Minnie experiences. The diary format works exceptionally well as Gloeckner has perfectly captured the narrative voice of a frustrated young girl struggling with adulthood thrust upon her too early. The immediacy of each entry draws you in, and truly recreates the painful experiences for the reader. Gloeckner’s art is detailed and gorgeous, however, this is not strictly a graphic novel. The use of sequential storytelling techniques are limited, and feel somewhat out of place. The majority of the book is Minnie’s diary, but the sporadic illustrations, though beautifully drawn, break the pace of the narrative. There are only two drawings that Minnie claims to have drawn herself, and the artistic style on these two is markedly different, distinguishing them from the others. While these two strips are effectively integrated into the story, enhancing the sense of character, the reader is left to wonder who drew the other pages, and why they’re placed in the middle of what is supposed to be a private diary. However, this is nitpicking what is otherwise an outstanding work. Grade 5/5

-- Marc Sobel

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