7.30.08 Review (Singular)

I don't think I can ever remember a time that my weekly purchase amounted to a single floppy issue. The combination of the post-con lull and more selective buying habits must have finally done it...

Northlanders #8 (DC/Vertigo): As Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice wrap up the arc entitled Sven the Returned, we're treated to something subtle, but very important. Sven is a breathtaking character because he understands that true cultural progress and personal growth come from breaking a cycle or pattern of behavior. In this issue, he literally turns his back on the notion of what others anticipate he'll do. He has the courage to forge his own path in an unexpected direction. He carves out his own little world by building his nuclear family and removing it from the inevitability of what's immediately in front of him. He's considered the larger picture for himself and his countrymen and has found an unwillingness to repeat the sins of the past. You hear the writing cliche frequently that characters begin to "write themselves." This turn was so unexpected that you can almost feel that happening here. I wonder if Wood had all of this originally planned or if he got to this point in the script and then Sven whispered to him, "you know what? Fuck this, I'm leaving and going in a different direction. This life is over." It's easy to focus on Wood's scripting ability, but I'd be remiss in not commenting on Gianfelice's pencils. What I really admire is the versatility of his page layouts. He's not afraid to chop up the page in different ways to capture the pace the team wants and deliver the right succession of story beats with a slightly lower panel, a missing gutter, or an asymmetrical design. It all makes me wonder, what's next in the Northlanders universe? Grade A.


San Diego Comic Con International 2008

Ah, where to begin. This one was a little bittersweet. Rather than regale you with tales of my adventures through numerous panels, after parties, conversations with creators and publishers, and all of the high falutin’ spectacle, I thought I’d concentrate instead on the two most prevalent themes I encountered. Those trends basically lead right into the intent and primary content of this post. There were indeed highlights, but it was a very lackluster experience; even the Eisner Awards felt predictable and safe. When Brian K. Vaughan and Y: The Last Man are winning, instead of Jason Aaron on Scalped or Brian Wood and his amazing body of work, it disturbs me. Not that there’s anything wrong with BKV and Y, that’s a fine title, not picking on him per se – it’s just makes the ceremony a little rote. I mean, does anyone really think Meltzer’s JLA #11 was the best single issue last year? Really?! I know the awards are influenced heavily by the nominations and personal taste of the rotating judging panel, but how many comics did those people actually read? It’s an ok issue, but for my money there’s dozens more qualified single issues. I can only watch James Jean win for the same category so many times. I’d prefer to have more innovation and an edgier quality recognized. Of course, that’s just my personal taste, your mileage may vary, but it all did have me asking… do I need to even go next year? Could I get by with just one day instead of all four? Would LA or Chicago be a better show for me?

Theme 1: Where Are The Umm… You Know, Comics? The feeling that Hollywood (and by extension, everything non-comic related such as video games, toys, t-shirts, merchandising, jewelry, etc.) has long been co-opting the con to an increasingly alarming degree has permeated the show strongly for the last few years. It was always noticeable and understandable, but this is the first time I really felt palpable disgust and resignation across the board from retailers, publishers, and con-goers alike. I heard a lot of comments that boiled down to “Where are the comics at Comic Con?” The CBLDF charity auction was treated to a sermon from Mile High’s Chuck Rozanski on getting back to our roots. Multiple retailers I encountered on the dealer floor flat out stated this is the last San Diego they’d be subjecting themselves to. It’s too expensive; when you take into account the rising gas prices, travel costs, staffing, merchandise, booth rental, and just the pain in the ass factor of even finding a hotel room or place to eat, it all culminates with an overwhelming sense of being more trouble than it’s worth. One dealer from the East Coast told me that his total operating cost for the con will be around $11,000. So just to break even, the guy’s got to do $11,000 in 4 days! Now perhaps he was overstating his costs to make a point, but he was certainly not the only dealer I heard spouting out five figure price tags for the junket. He asked rhetorically, why would I come back when I can go online? I’m better off focusing my efforts on Chicago, a “real comics show,” and as far West as he was now willing to travel. He continued, why participate in an an environment where 90% of the people walking by just want to watch movie trailers and get free t-shirts? They could care less about comics. And for every retailer pushed out by this dynamic, there’s a waiting list of non-comic related enterprises waiting to sign up for booth space. The numbers are dwindling in a downward spiral. Bummer.

Theme 2: Reconnecting With Friends! This phenomenon really seemed to grow out of the first theme. Everyone in the inner comic book circle seemed to be feeling a bit marginalized, as if to mainstream America we are now a minority within a minority – the only guys at the Comic Con actually interested in comics anymore. It was a bizarre Days of Future Past motif, an oddball lot banding together with fellow mutants for survival. This very act seemed to create a tighter bond, sense of solidarity, and mutual recognition that this dying breed is in it together, until the end. I chatted with Ryan Claytor of Elephant Eater, checking in on the best autobiographical comics around. I introduced him to Tim Goodyear at Sparkplug Comics, the Portland powerhouse which takes credit for my largest single purchase of the convention. I found myself dragging folks away from Marvel (where there was nary a comic to be had, what you found was primarily people taking pictures of the Iron Man armor) and DC (which was an odd mélange of the Watchmen trailer, toys, and free posters) and over to Top Shelf or Drawn & Quarterly where I could introduce folks to the work of Matt Kindt or Rutu Modan. I met up with Jaime from SoCal Comics and discussed the merits of showing original comic book art at the museum I work for. There was Lee Hester of Lee’s Comics, which was the only place I could find this week’s comics, a novel concept in the sheer audacity of its antithetical logic. Many times I heard tense and genuine quivering in their voices as people spoke of the late Rory Root of Comic Relief. I ran into Phil and Terry who used to run Heroes in Campbell, CA (Phil is now the Foosball World Champion – whodathunkit?). I spent time connecting with new creators like GB Tran, whose work I was an instant fan of. I visited the CBLDF booth and found it oddly vacant during my three visits, though over $55,000 was raised at the charity auction Saturday night, around half of what the recent Gordon Lee case cost to adjudicate. It was really a special honor to meet Gordon Lee himself, who is an unassuming guy who readily admitted his life would have been destroyed if not for the fund. Talk about personalizing a cause; if one ever needed a lesson of the hard reality in an industry of fictitious creations, this was it. All of these experiences really touched me and reminded me of the importance of personal connections in any business. Lastly, we had the “Boys from Brazil,” Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, along with Becky Cloonan, who were just mopping up Eisner Awards. From these guys, you could feel the sheer joy of the craft. Gabriel got on that podium at one point, composed himself, paused, and simply proclaimed… “I love comics.” Yes, more of that please.

Yes, it’s about the comics. Or rather, it should be. So instead of talking about the amazing Watchmen trailer, the entertaining Terry Moore panel, the gratification of seeing Jeff Lester of Comix Experience on a blogging panel, or even the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from Grant Morrison and Gerard Way, let’s look at some comics, shall we? Many free comics were shoved into my hand, all of which were shit. I was making it a point to leave the ones I read in the garbage in the bathroom or walk around with a couple folded in my back pocket, all Joe Nozemack style from the Savant Magazine days. It’s not worth anything! The only thing it’s worth is the value you derive from it while reading the story and enjoying the art! Without further delay, here are the real gems I picked up;

Concatenations (Elephant Eater): One of the first books I picked up. Forget the fact that I have a pull quote on the back; this is one of the most intelligent pieces of commentary you’ll find on the medium. Congrats Ryan Claytor! Hope you sold out!

Nerd Burglar (Sparkplug Comics): Very few people know that Sparkplug put out a freebie on Free Comic Book Day; this is chock full of goodness from some of their finest creators.

Godland: Celestial Edition One (Image Comics): I’ve been meaning to pick this up, having enjoyed the first few single issues. It was pretty fun to get it for $25 (regularly $39.99) directly from Joe Casey, chatting with him as he signed.

Content #2 (Self-Published): Brooklyn’s own GB Tran simply amazed me with his art style. I’ve read some of his work in anthologies and was pleasantly surprised to see some books that were wholly his own.

Aya of Yop City (Drawn & Quarterly): Aya was one of the finest original graphic novels I read last year and I was ecstatic to find the sequel and also learned that a third volume is in the works .

Jamilti & Other Stories (Drawn & Quarterly): Rutu Modan did a signing at the D&Q booth and was including wonderful and unique sketches for every person that attended. She told me that everyone was buying Exit Wounds because of the Eisner buzz, but I was the first person to purchase this book all week, which is both cool for me and alarming for her.

Ordinary Victories: What is Precious (NBM): The long awaited follow up to Manu Larcenet’s best solo work, in my humble opinion.

Mesmo Delivery (Image Comics): Mark my words, Rafael Grampa is going to be the next big thing. He’s going to blow up like the other Boys from Brazil. His style is like a delicious mix of Paul Pope and Frank Quitely, uniting thick inky lines with an incredible amount of detail. This was as close as I came to being blown away by anything I saw at the con based on first impressions alone.

Too Cool to be Forgotten (Top Shelf): Alex Robinson’s new book, really cool signature and sketch inside!

5 (Self-Published): From Becky Cloonan, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, Rafael Grampa, and Vasilis Lolos, the Eisner Award winning anthology. Can’t wait to read it! Signed by everyone!

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less #1-2 (Sparkplug Comics): This Sarah Glidden work comes highly recommended from pal Tim Goodyear.

Reich #1-4 (Sparkplug Comics): Elijah Brubaker’s book, which I’d already heard great things about and wanted to try, also highly recommended by Tim.

Your Disease Spread Quickly (Robotic Boot): Tom Neely’s book The Blot from I Will Destroy You is one of my favorite books from last year, so I was excited to tell him that and pick up this book from him directly.

King K: I picked up this signed Paul Pope print from the CBLDF booth; it should go nicely in my new office.

Local #11 Cover: Picked up this signed print directly from Ryan Kelly, ditto on the office.

Content #2 Print: This is how much I instantly liked GB Tran’s work, picked up a print of a page from the second issue also.

Christopher Mitten Print: This color non-Wasteland piece is just gorgeous. It was a real treat to meet Chris for the second time, express my love for Wasteland, and to hear that he’s a fan and regular reader of 13 Minutes! Quick Plug: I just read issue #19 last night and it basically blew my fucking skull off. So many twists and turns, so much revealed, so much plot development, these guys are brilliant. Go buy it! If you’re not reading Wasteland, you’re really missing out on something special.

See you next year!


7.23.08 Comics

This will sound strangely familiar, but my San Diego Comic Con International schedule this week just isn't going to allow me the time to digest the material and post reviews. My unofficial Convention activities already started Monday afternoon with tours of the museum I work at for visiting friends and isn't going to let up from there. Regular reviews should return next week; in the interim, here's what I plan on picking up this week...

Wasteland #19 (Oni Press): Are you reading the best book from Oni Press? Do you understand that Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten are going to be rock stars?

Dan Dare #7 (Virgin Comics): Are you picking up the long awaited finale to this great sci-fi series? Will Dan finally defeat the Mekon?

Ambush Bug #1 (DC): Are you going to buy Keith Giffen's latest hilarity? Do you like to laugh?

DMZ #33 (DC/Vertigo): Are you one of the loyal readers who agrees this book is tied with Scalped as best Vertigo offering? You're not curious to see how the Parco Delgado arc turns out?

Black Summer #7 (Avatar Press): Are you rushing to the comic shop to purchase the last issue of Warren Ellis' superb blender of superhero/political commentary? Don't you love that Juan Jose Ryp art?


7.16.08 Comics

My travel schedule this week simply isn't going to allow for reviews of new books, but here's what I plan on picking up...

Scalped #19 (DC/Vertigo): This cover is hot! I'm very much looking forward to an entire issue devoted to the relationship of Dash and Carol; their encounters so far have been tense, passionate, and sexually explosive.

Hellblazer #246 (DC/Vertigo): Jason Aaron week continues here at 13 Minutes with the second of the two part little arc about Constantine's "Mucous Membrane" and some of the punk residue that rippled out and affected Newcastle.

Universal War One #1 (Marvel/Soleil): The only title from the initial round of Soleil offerings that looks promising to me. This one boasts a grand high premise about civil war in the solar system and the mysterious emergence of a black wall in space. Fans of the Humanoids line, take note.


7.10.08 Reviews

Invincible Iron Man #3 (Marvel): Fraction and Larroca deliver some amazing opening visuals with Tony suiting up as he's being engulfed in flames. This book hums gleefully along with such a palpable sheer joy of storytelling and excitement from the creators that it's downright infectious. I love the infusion of geopolitics and legal issues, crafting the Son of Stane as a brilliant character foil to Tony, and the ways it dovetails so nicely into the recent film. The traumatic nature of Pepper's injuries dredges up painful memories of Tony's own "secret origin." The subtely with which this dynamic is played is perfect, with quiet and effective lines like "yeah" and "I know" in response to some of the doctor's status updates. This is shaping up to be one of the best Iron Man runs around, up there with Ellis' Extremis arc. Grade A.

Captain Britain & MI-13 #3 (Marvel): Hrmm. I'm still into this title, but there's not much to comment on here. It doesn't feel as charming or loaded with quirky subversive dialogue as previous issues and relies largely on the highly telegraphed return of the titular character. Competent, but not very engaging this time out. Grade B.

Secret Invasion #4 (Marvel): The opening scenes with Reed being tortured or examined hit their intended mark of being uncomfortable and creepy (really, what is that middle suction deal doing down near his groin?!), but otherwise this issue is really all over the place. Nick Fury is inexplicably back, there's some very overt commentary about the human race (read: US Imperialism), long-winded explanations about the paranoia that's been instilled in the heroes... err, something happening to Ms. Marvel, Natasha stepping up, random Wonder Man panels I didn't understand, a disappearing Jessica/Skrull, something about The Hood, and an interesting tease of an ending. Overall, a real shotgun blast approach with scattered pellets, few of which hit the mark. Yu's art is solid as usual, but nothing jaw-dropping. Grade B-.

I Kill Giants #1 (Image): Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura offer up a disjointed narrative, something about cow's milk, garbage men, elementary schools, and gamers (err, say what?). I never felt like I knew quite what I was reading. I like Niimura's page layouts a great deal and his mildly manga influenced facial features, but Kelly's protagonist isn't very likable. I wasn't always sure who was speaking and the core premise is quite obtuse, a first issue should really make more of an effort to connect with its intended audience. Grade C+.

I also picked up;

The New York Four (DC/Minx): Brian Wood? Ryan Kelly? Sold! Bonus points to everyone who catches the self-referential shout out to Local #3 in the form of a "Theories & Defenses" album cover!

Comic Foundry: Summer 2008 (Comic Foundry, LLC): My eye caught 7 typos (that's on pages 1, 14, 20, 40, 43, 59, and 62), that's an average of one per every 9 pages! I don't know if that's good or bad given standard editorial tolerance, but... it still sucks. That aside, Comic Foundry is successful in filling a market niche to me based on what it's not. It lacks the dick n' fart fratboy humor all too common in Wizard Magazine. It also lacks the sometimes inaccessible and haughty erudition of The Comics Journal. Perhaps the perfect modern fanmag with a nice balance of article types, great feature length for this generation, and nice balance of mainstream and indie coverage. With the exception of one page of video game stuff and being on the great typo hunt 2008, I read this puppy cover to cover and enjoyed it all. Grade A-.


Ryan Claytor Strikes Again

Concatenations: Autobiography in Comics – A Master of Fine Arts Thesis (Elephant Eater): “If words can be literature and images can be art, then why is the combination of the two somehow less than the sum of their parts?” With this statement, Claytor boldly and logically defends the medium from would-be detractors. For me, this eternal defense succinctly solidifies the inclusion of the medium in the elusive world of Fine Art. Concatenations is the republication of Claytor’s Master’s Thesis discussing his thoughts and ideas on autobiographical comics and the larger industry they reside in. In a fashion reminiscent of Scott McCloud, Clayor takes us on an instructive but entertaining journey highlighting the differences between a genre and a medium. He moves on to discuss the idea of reclaiming ownership of “comics” as a term; as it’s swung from relatively simplistic and accurate terminology to the extreme as a perceived pejorative term, with attempts to supplant it by Eisner’s “Graphic Novel” or the Japanese equivalent - Tatsumi’s “gekiga,” Claytor suggests taking it back and infusing it with our own insider value and meaning. I really liked this idea; it’s brilliant and culturally insightful, but it also feels a little subversive, as if we can take this back without anyone even knowing it, an inside joke to those who would use it with a negative connotation. Claytor touches upon several of the elements he feels are necessary to develop an effective autobiographical comic, the principle element being an openness to revel in the imperfect human qualities that largely define our existence and interactions with each other. This appreciation of the imperfect is complimented visually with Claytor’s own hand lettering. One of my favorite sequences involves a comparison to Magritte’s famous work “This is Not a Pipe” to his own “This is Not a Span of Time” as an example of how the gap to Fine Art is, and rightfully should be, narrowing. There are so many parallels presented that it’s hard not to consider it an unspoken given that comics would by their very nature be in the realm of Fine Art. At first glance, it would be easy to think of this as an academic exercise and not a comic per se. True, it is a book about comics, with some comics in it; dense with weighty and academic conceptualization, but it flows with the enjoyable affable ease of someone in love with their job. Ryan Claytor has grown beyond being another interesting self-publisher to the status of important voice, worthy of recognition alongside Eisner and McCloud as one of the shining examples of modern discourse on the medium. Claytor has made autobiographical comics relevant for the 21st century with the perfect balance of soul and intellect. Grade A+.

Note: This is an advance review; Concatenations will debut toward the end of July, but is now available for preorder at the http://www.elephanteater.com/ web-site. Be sure to check out Ryan Claytor and all of his work at San Diego Comic-Con International from July 24th to 27th, table K7 in the Small Press Pavilion. And hey, I’ll see you there!


7.02.08 Reviews

Astonishing X-Men #25 (Marvel): Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi’s AXM is really different from the Whedon-Cassaday affair, and I can appreciate both. Rather than reliance on crisp photorealistic art and quippy dialogue with plot lines built around isolated fan-favorite “cool” moments, this team is a bit more subtle and nuanced. The art is darker and less defined; it lends a more subversive feeling that fits well with where the team finds themselves currently, both geographically and philosophically. Even Bianchi’s panel layouts are a bit more experimental than usual and boast a disjointed feel that dovetails nicely into this group's in-flux existence. From a scripting standpoint, Ellis nails the characterization with simple and effective lines like “you have a tendency to self-sabotage” and shows he’s captured the essence of the team, whether it’s the portrayal of the gruffness of Wolverine, eagerness of Hisako, regal stature of Ororo, or the strategist nature of Scott. All in all, a great set up for a markedly new direction with markedly new artistic approaches. Grade A.

Billy Batson & The Magic of Shazam! #1 (DC): Mike “Hero Bear & The Kid” Kunkel turns in a very likable first issue here. With a $2.25 price tag, it feels packed with entertainment and we get a lot of bang for the buck. Kunkel captures the innocent sense of wonder that really should accompany Billy Batson, embeds good messaging for younger readers without it playing overt or soapbox-y, maintains a consistent level of humor, and isn’t afraid to expose kids to “big” words like pachyderm. This is a well balanced introduction to Batson basics, complete with the Wizard, Mary Marvel, the alter ego of Captain Marvel, his day job at the radio station, and his counterpoint Adam, all with plenty of adventure to be had. The only real observational criticism I have has nothing to do with the content of the book per se, it’s more directed at DC Editorial. Kunkel’s Hero Bear was wildly popular when it debuted seven or eight years ago. I remember my LCS at the time selling out, droves of fans asking for the title, a friend of mine who is a graphic designer begging me to buy it for him, and even non-comic reader soccer moms entering the shop inquiring about the title. That was seven or eight years ago. Why did it take DC (or any company for that matter) so long to get him on a regular title? If they’d capitalized on his popularity and style at the time, we could have had so much more. Imagine sitting here now in 2008 with 84 issues in the can of this title. Wouldn’t that go a long way toward getting kids interested in the medium again? Grade A.

Northlanders #7 (DC/Vertigo): The lone typo aside (“plnt” your feet), Wood and Gianfelice deliver another entertaining and intriguing issue. What I enjoyed the most about this issue was the sense that many events are coalescing to transform Sven into something grand and dark. Without spoiling, there are major plot marks here related to Gorm and Thora. Much of what Sven does, he derives no satisfaction from and only does out of a sense of duty. The interesting question I felt that continues to be posed is “what exactly does Sven want?” He seems dispassionate about reclaiming a throne that’s rightfully his, or the inheritance that accompanies it. I’m expecting him to reveal some sense of direction about his true desires next issue that propels us into the second arc. But, knowing Wood he'll surprise me pleasantly with something I haven't thought of. Grade A.

Echo #4 (Abstract Studio): This issue feels like “all middle,” but still does so beautifully and with refreshing aplomb. Echo, as a title, swaggers into the room with a calm sense of purpose. I don’t know where it’s going, but it knows where it’s going and continues to march confidently forward with its own vision in sight. It feels like there’s a plan, which is more than I can say for half the titles on the stands right now. Here we’re treated to a convergence of government plots, slowly revealed powers of “the suit,” Annie’s boyfriend, Julie learning the powers, and many different angles to the investigation by different authorities. Echo continues its deliberate and effective approach with a Grade A.


Graphic Novel Of The Month

Good-Bye (Drawn & Quarterly): D&Q’s third strong offering of Yoshihiro Tatsumi work from 1971-1972 focuses on several tales that involve the disorienting era of post-war Japan. While I don’t believe Tatsumi’s intent was ever to merely shock or titillate, these stories can do just that. They also reveal heartbreaking frustrations and there’s a consistent theme of disillusionment with the little existences that many of the characters manage to eke out for themselves. Their surroundings, their very paradigms for living, ultimately dissolve and are devoid of fulfillment. Tatsumi’s stories in this volume are full of nuance and subtlety. Whether the protagonists’ actions or the events depicted are inherently appealing or not, they exist simply as truth in the lives shown. They’re presented matter-of-factly, without much judgment, and allow the reader to condemn, find small slivers of hope, or ultimately understand the dynamic while exploring some truly foreign concepts. Much of Tatsumi’s “lending library” work (read the Tomine interview) attempted to elevate the form by devising the label of “gekiga” or “dramatic pictures” to counter and disassociate from the “irresponsible pictures” or “manga” at the time. In fact, there is a nice Wiki entry that uses the analogy of Will Eisner pushing hard for the term “graphic novel” to supplant the assumably pejorative nature of the term “comic book.” Neither term really caught on with the mainstream with much gusto. I suspect that Eisner, Tatsumi, and the industry holistically came to realize that there’s more to something than what’s in a calculated name. Tatsumi’s work is full of mature and complex themes, not necessarily just adult content. Similarly, his clean unadorned lines, expressive facial features, and inherent stylistic differences are what sets his work apart visually. Though some of his figures border on caricature, through economy of form he’s able to capture a realism that the bluster and fury of manga, with it’s speed lines and bolded, altering font sizes, simply doesn’t. It’s these story tones and visual cues which provide the distinctions, not the label of “gekiga,” that allow Tatsumi’s work to have been ahead of it’s time as an alternate genre when crafted, and to now truly transcend and endure for an entirely new generation. Grade A.