4.27.11 Reviews

The New York Five #4 (DC/Vertigo): Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, along with guest inker Jim Rugg offer up an emotionally satisfying conclusion to their college girls in the city saga. One of the best parts of this is that if this crew were indeed girls when we first met them, they are one step closer to being women as we leave them. Kind of a side note, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Jim Rugg involved with the book. He’s a gifted storyteller and artist in his own right, and it’s always cool to see “the cool people” working together, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. The centerpiece of this denouement is probably the relationship between sisters Riley and Angie. Riley finally confesses her mistake and there’s an implied forgiveness based on recognition of past sins that’s played just right. Angie has a couple years on Riley and it’s given her a wisdom and experience that she wields very responsibly. Kelly’s pencils are as solid as ever, depicting a wide range of convincing body language and facial expressions. Perhaps because of the creator line-up, I was paying special attention to the inks. There were a couple of pages where the inks felt a little “thin” and not as, well, “inky” as they usually do, but for the most part, Rugg fits right in, neither calling attention to his own work, nor distracting from the existing house style. Kelly’s inks really shine in spots, in the absence of color, they bring the events to life, creating well rendered shadows along arms or jackets that sell the whole experience. Wood’s script hits all the right notes. There’s subtle things like how he mentions that New York can feel small, as like minded individuals tend to cluster together and create their own little sub-cultures and spheres of influence, even in a humongous city. There are more meaty concepts like his portrayal of the dispersion of a circle of friends being a sort of rite of passage that most of us have experienced. Their interests, schooling, careers, families, loved ones, and unforeseen circumstances all pulling them along different trajectories in life. The biggest of those story “notes” for the characters to find is the way that Wood identifies this maturation and learning being part of a larger process. Many of his characters, from Pella Suzuki in Supermarket, to Megan in Local, and even Matty in DMZ, have been unfairly knocked for doings things we don’t agree with, or simply don’t like, but they’re all part of a learning process. It’s a dose of reality in an otherwise fictitious story. It’s a natural element of maturation and a person’s identity solidifying over time. In short, you fuck it up before you get it right usually, if we're being honest. I’ve always said that any situation you can come away from, even if at first glance it feels like a disaster, having learned something about yourself or the world, was a valuable experience and not entirely a waste of time. I think this is an important thread that more people need to recognize before they casually say “oh, Riley did something bad, I don’t like her” or “gee, Megan did something bad, she’s a bitch.” Lastly, I feel like the final glorious blurb of text in the book is the definitive punctuation at the end of a sentence for Brian Wood. In a long and diverse career which has repeatedly demonstrated affection for New York, it’s almost as if this is the pinnacle artistic statement of his love affair with the city. Grade A+.

Scalped #48 (DC/Vertigo): Did I hear Jason Aaron say recently that he could see Scalped concluding some time around issue 60, or am I making that up? For some reason, it’s stuck in my head. Well, once DMZ wraps at the end of this year, then he can definitely say for a few months that he has the best Vertigo book coming out and there isn’t another book existing to contest that statement. He’ll be in the clear. In any case, this is part 4 of 5 of this arc, and as usual, Aaron keeps ratcheting up the tension. There’s the tension between Shunka and Dash, men who both have their big secrets and can smell that fact dripping from each other’s pores, and there’s the tension between Red Crow and Dash as they finally bond. This conversation between them has basically been brewing for years and it really is a pivotal moment. There’s tension between Nitz and everyone, who is coming on strong like he’s a reborn player in a most dangerous game. R.M. Guera’s art rides its usual high of grit and emotion. The spirit world sweat lodge sequence is a particularly effective scene with the color variations, and it relays information that couldn’t otherwise be done with a more traditional narrative. I feel like my Scalped reviews are getting shorter and shorter. It’s a brilliant book, certainly Jason Aaron’s high water mark for my money, and if I haven’t said anything for 48 issues that’s made the unfaithful seek it out, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say at this point to sway opinions. The rumor mill says that Scalped’s sales numbers are low and I think that’s a shame. All things being equal, of course I’d prefer creators to walk away from books at their own pace or plan an ending of their own volition rather than have the threat of cancellation from the business side looming like a vulture over them that might skew their art. Grade A.

Illuminating The Darkness

Too Dark To See (Thuban Press): This is the second book by Julia Gfrörer I’ve read, following up her mighty Flesh & Bone, published by Sparkplug Comic Books. I’m happy to see her body of work expanding. Too Dark To See is lovingly hand-assembled and continues Gfrorer’s fascination with mythological folklore, and the intersection between the ethereal and the occult.

One of Gfrorer’s muses seems to come in the form of dueling incubus and succubus imagery, this time focusing on the latter female variety. Gfrörer has clearly done her homework, yet doesn’t brag about it overtly during the course of the work. There’s this Latin phrase I keep going back to: “Ars Est Celare Artem.” The Art Is To Hide The Art, meaning that audiences should not be made keenly aware of craft, or it pushes them out of the experience. We know that both the incubus and succubus are believed to surreptitiously prey on their sexual subjects, and specifically that repeated visitation by such a demon is believed to affect one’s health. My point here is that though Gfrörer weaves this fact about diminishing health subtly into the dialogue, it’s not as if she’s showing off her knowledge in the manner that some fledgling creators seem prone to. We’ve all seen those types of lines that stick out as if the creator just wants you to know what book they’ve read or what factoid they’re capable of conjuring. There’s no context for it other than to demonstrate one’s own superiority and it’s instantly off-putting. I have a lot of respect for the restraint she shows instead.

Beyond those mechanics, the real question to ask in this story concerns what the succubus represents thematically. I take the shadow creeping in to embody the type of self-doubt that can threaten any young couple in love.

Visually, the art is spartan and austere. There is a certain frankness in Gfrorer’s lines that I find so appealing; it’s there in the way she captures a scowl or a shy turn, and it’s more convincing than the spare lines might lead you to think. Gfrörer doesn’t flood her panels with line work, but the lines she does choose to use all have their purpose and carry some meaning. That is to say, Julia Gfrörer is a very effective artist.

Taken holistically, the total package is an example of bold and confident storytelling, an artist realizing their vision in an uncompromised fashion. It’s so easy for creators to have their original ideas watered down by self-doubt, audience expectations, or even a collaborator or an editor, so I’m glad that Gfrörer has found a space to operate in that’s unfettered by such distractions. The work feels pure and isn’t afraid to stake a claim on meaning.

One of the things I enjoy about Gfrorer’s work in general is that it’s occasionally charged with unashamed sexuality. Here we see this flirtation with a cavalier attitude regarding the eroticism of non-consensuality that some people like to play with, even if they won’t readily admit it.

These elements are not just gratuitous titillation, but a fine examination about interpersonal dynamics. What happens when you put two people into a closed room and watch what they’re capable of doing to each other emotionally? When locked into a difficult conversation, you usually have three choices in approach: deflect, engage, or escalate, and you’ll consciously (or not) choose one of those paths. We can see some exploration of these avenues for this couple. The dangers are in the shadows, in the insecurity that can invade a relationship if you let it. The ultimate risk is potentially not seeing another person as they truly are, for who they are, and allowing these demonic nymphs, be them corporeal or imagined, to steal confidence, to steal life itself, which is a notion you can read into either figuratively or literally thanks to Julia Gfrorer’s keen artistic eye and playful devil’s advocacy.

Too Dark To See might not have the “zing” in the dialogue that something like Flesh & Bone had, it might not play with those direct expressive word choices of that previous book, but thematically it’s just as strong, and even more singular in the mechanisms it uses to achieve its storytelling goal. I’m left wondering how this happened, that after just two books, Julia Gfrörer has become one of my favorite creators. Grade A.

Grinding It Out

And Then One Day #9: Page 15 (Elephant Eater): Panel 1: I feel like there isn’t a whole lot more I can say about the artistic approach here without repeating myself. Visually, this first panel contains examples of most of the techniques I’ve already described. You can run down that list, altered figure scale, unique camera placement, playful perspective, depth of field, variable line weight, detail orientation, world-building, half figures pushing the confines of the panel borders on either side... check, check, and check! It’s scary to think it’s all become rote, that Ryan is getting this good even with “any ol’ panel” we could view at random. So instead of dwelling, here’s something I’ve been slowly noticing, but haven’t really commented on yet. Speech balloons! I’m specifically noticing now Ryan breaks the dialogue into chunks, where he chooses to begin and end one string of words, and what shape and orientation the physical balloons take. For example, “Thanks so much, Dr. Polkinhorn.” Pause. Break in natural speech. End one portion of the attached word balloon, and commence next section... I think that a lesser artist would just not even bother doing all that, they’d just cram it into one big word balloon, and move about their business without giving the breakdown much thought at all. Polkinhorn retorts “Oh, of course.” And the way that balloon is on an overlapping horizontal plane with Ryan’s last statement almost gives you the impression that the good doctor began responding to the first chunk of Ryan’s dialogue before he got a chance to even complete the second chunk, not quite cutting him off. Hopefully you catch my meaning here and it’s not clear as mud. It’s not that he interrupted Ryan, just that his response automatically was initiated the second Ryan said “Thanks so much...” and the way the balloons are even placed in relation to each other carries some meaning. Of course, this all ends with the long pause before his last statement, because he considered it before he said it, and then he finally delivers the cordial afterthought “...and call me Harry.”

Panel 2: Hrmm... for some reason here, I’m noticing that my eye is drawn to the motion lines around Ryan’s hand waving goodbye. I feel like it’s (gasp!) maybe a little off(?). Man, this is really nitpicking, but I’m not sure if the side-to-side motion that he intends is conveyed, or if it actually suggests the hand is moving in more of a circular motion, like a prom queen wave(?). Maybe it’s the fact that Ryan’s upturned hand is facing the audience and not actually facing Dr. Polkinhorn(?). Maybe it would have been more effective without the motion lines and just capturing that static moment in time as the hand hit the top of its swing(?). As you can tell from my many rhetorical questions (???) I haven’t arrived at any conclusion here, I’m simply thinking out loud and noting that my eye went to a specific place and then fixated on one very minute motion for some odd reason. Weird. One other bit I notice in this panel is that the speech balloons overlap, meaning that Ryan’s text is on Dr. Polkinhorn’s side, and vice versa, while the tails of the balloons trail back to their respective owners. I’d be curious if Ryan consciously intended anything with this layout. I’m picturing the balloons more segregated to the sides of their owners and visually that option is a little jarring, really separating the panel into halves, so maybe Ryan was trying to avoid that and go for something warmer. As is, it balances the panel better visually, and you can even read into it that since the balloons are a little more intertwined, perhaps that’s symbolic of the duo being actively engaged in conversation.

Panel 3: I think this is an interesting choice for camera placement, because it suggests that we now momentarily have the POV of Dr. Polkinhorn, who is not the assumable protagonist of the story. I think that’s an interesting conceit, to surrender POV to another person in what is essentially an autobiographical comic. Perhaps this was intended as a bit of self-aware devil’s advocacy since a large portion of the issue, and Ryan’s greater body of work in general, seeks to examine how autobiography functions on a continuum of truth and fiction, and how artistic choices made for presentation purposes can skew our understanding of purportedly real events.

Panel 4: The previous panel had this too, but it really delivers in this final shot. The characters in the foreground walk toward the general direction of the audience in forced perspective shots that really make them pop! This is the kind of panel-piercing vertigo that Jack “King” Kirby made famous. It lends such a sense of motion, of kinetic energy, that characters are bursting forth from the confines of their two dimensional container and getting as close to 3D as they possibly can while remaining dry ink on flat paper. Not only is that happening, but the other dynamic is that Ryan has flattened this panel into a long horizontal widescreen shot, pulled the camera down significantly to his own eye level, and allowed us to take in the expanse beyond him that runs all the way to the vanishing point. It really is beautiful visually, while also giving the impression that the world he’s taken so long to build, is now one that he’s leaving as he walks way. This guy is good.


20th Century Boys: 02

This volume propmptly introduces Manjome Inshu, the enigmatic right-hand figure that made me think of the late Pete Postlethwaite’s “Kobayashi” in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. He’s endlessly maddening to the characters he interacts with, but entertaining for the reading audience because of it. He talks in circles, half answers, and never quite confirms anything except that Kenji is a central figure in the telling of a prophecy.

Naoki Urasawa continues his clever and self-aware use of language. Kenji actually slightly breaks the fourth wall at one point and talks directly to us during his narration, commenting that he could throw even more adjectives at his description to make someone sound more evil. Later, the gang describes someone as “the shadowy figure," so that the characters are commenting on the very archetypes that the author is using. I enjoy stuff like that immensely; these passages always stand out as someone who’s writing at a level beyond most writers working in the industry today. Another example that zings by before you even have much time to notice is the way that Kenji casually refers to his new guitar as a “machine gun,” with no explanation or commentary whatsoever. It’s interesting to view the power that object has through his eyes.

Yukiji, the young Customs Officer, gets some screen time, and she’s a guarded, beautiful, capable young woman who I instantly like. Her biggest psychological driver early on is that she has very high expectations of Kenji. So many times in pop culture, female characters are stand-ins for a greater force. I feel like she is already the embodiment of Japan itself, and her expectations of Kenji are so high, because according to the prophecy, he’s supposed to save the world. Yukiji’s expectations for Kenji (and to an extent, his group of friends) feel like Japan’s expectations for their younger generation. I think this is a central philosophical tenet of the book.

The cast pieces together that childhood friend Otcho created the symbol, and thus you are lead right into thinking that Otcho is “Friend.” That theory is backed up by the connections made by the Police Investigators, but it’s all too soon, and frankly, too easy. I have a hard time accepting that as ultimate fact, it could be a red herring this early on in the narrative, but it’s still a creepy prospect.

We learn a lot in this volume; Urasawa does answer questions, but also introduces more in the process. Donkey’s death was not suicide, the other friend assumed missing in Thailand was actually seen in India, and the big question driving the tale seems to be “Who is Friend?” and why is he/she basing their actions on Kenji’s young playtime story? This pair of cops is essentially a set of throwaway characters, but they’re done so well, as fully realized people. Just when one of them is about to make amends with his estranged daughter, he’s killed. Not only does it break our heart, but we learn that there are also Friend “Agents” in high places within the government, which smartly establishes that the gang can’t seek help from the authorities. Kamisama, the old man “God,” also gets time to develop, as does Kenji’s sister and her motives in seemingly abandoning her baby. Urasawa really makes an effort to flesh out the core cast and link them all to the larger mystery, such as the mysterious killing of the sister’s would-be suitor. It’s a complex world where everything is interconnected and you know in your heart there are no coincidences in this story. I liked, for example, that Yukiji’s friend that we previously met with no explanation, is actually a lawyer connected to the case. The cause of recent deaths is confirmed to be a virus, and the deaths are spreading to San Francisco and London, in line with Kenji’s make believe story as prophecy. The cliffhanger here is bold, essentially directing Kenji to “save the world.” Urasawa pushes every aspect of the story forward, propelling the plot rapidly, but also providing masterful character development.

I previously referred to the art as “cartoony,” which admittedly gives it short shrift without highlighting its capabilities. First off, I was primarily referring to the facial expressions, because the backgrounds and remainder of the figure work are all alive with realistic detail. One reader left a comment which characterized Urasawa’s dynamic as “plasticity,” which is a term that feels more accurate, so I’ll be stealing that. This plasticity allows a range of very versatile rendering. For example, old man Kamisama possesses the wrinkled visage of an old saggy street walker, so even without any text we’d recognize the character. Similarly, the cops come off gruff because of their square-jawed portrayal. Urasawa uses this strong visual shorthand, able to fill in the personality of his characters with visual stylization, like all the best artists do.


Revisiting Wednesday Comics

After picking up the big gorgeous oversized hardcover at the “Borders: Apocalypse Now sale for $30 (regularly priced at $49.99) and re-reading these stories, I noticed that my opinions of many of the pieces had merely been reinforced, but also that some had actually changed compared to the first time I consumed the series almost two years ago. It also got me thinking and I wanted to officially “dreamcast” my version of the eventual Wednesday Comics Volume 02, which I’d like to share with you. First, my quick impressions of the first volume;

Batman had been mediocre-to-good in my recollection, but it certainly reads better when collected. It still looks great, but the story flows much better in this format than I remember it flowing when broken up into installments. Most importantly, it’s really able to sell its singular idea at the end.

Kamandi is still one of the better offerings; the lavish illustrations in Sook’s Prince Valiant style are simply beautiful.

Superman didn’t impress me much when I read the single issues, and I think it’s actually worse when collected. You get a more crisp sense of how generic the story is, how inconsequential the action plays, and how random the layouts feel. Now that it’s collected, you’re not tricked into thinking it might get better with the next issue, the storytelling disaster is all right there in front of you.

Deadman is still one of the weaker offerings in my opinion; the first half plays very episodic, the art is middling, and the whole thing is an expository mess.

Green Lantern, I remember liking a great deal, but it seems even better collected. It benefits from the faster pace you experience when reading it in one sitting, Hal is great as a jet-setting space-faring, intergalactic cop with a magic wishing ring, and I think the team managed to capture the perfect Silver Age adventure and aesthetic.

Metamorpho is a story that I still don’t care for overall, but I don’t hate it quite as much as I used to. This time around, I was able to appreciate some of the inventive layouts a bit more (a couple pages that were meant to function as double page spreads are now being realized for the first time when collected), but the campy dialogue was just too overtly so, which made it all fall flat for me.

Teen Titans is still easily the dog of the bunch. There’s so much I specifically don’t like about it, but rather than cathartically rattle off examples to no avail, I guess it can be summarized with the art being incomprehensible and illogical at times, and the story being extremely generic and random, while not even really concluding properly.

Strange Adventures is still my personal favorite and probably in a three way tie for first place if I’m being totally objective. It’s one of the few pieces to convey a sense of scope that projects beyond its time allotted. Pope’s inky lines bristle with intertextual references to Jack Kirby, Dr. Seuss, 1950’s sci-fi by way of Philip K. Dick, and he even places a strong female hero on equal footing with Adam Strange. His cameo Dr. Fate is breathtaking, he’s one of the few artists working today who actively utilizes thought balloons, and since he already works at this size when composing the original art, it’s as if we’re finally seeing his artistry at the scale it was always intended.

Supergirl is one of that tied-for-first trio, and it has so much heart and is so much fun. There’s the pristine art from Amanda Conner and you’d be hard pressed to cite another artist who manages emotional content so well.

Metal Men was one of the weaker offerings and remains so. If I’m being as charitable as I can be, the art is actually dynamic, but the only one who ever thought this was written well was Dan DiDio.

Wonder Woman was perhaps the most controversial offering, comments online ranging from “unreadable” to “brilliant,” and I think that bipolar collective assessment actually holds. With a repeated reading, I can confidently say, that for me, this is now in the category of “noble failure” rather than the outright failure I may have initially leaned toward. It is visually stunning, ambitious, and envelope-pushing. The Winsor McCay notes are truly a unique attempt with the character, yet it remains dense and almost unreadable in spots. It’s not only the volume of text on the page, but the text is just plain boring at times.

Sgt. Rock, like Batman, is probably the strip that benefitted the most from being collected. It’s so much more cohesive and smooth, the size of the panels really shines with the enhanced paper quality, and I seemed to pick up subtleties in the dialogue that weren’t readily apparent before. If this one was fairly middling the first time, it jumps a couple notches toward the upper end of the spectrum.

Flash is that last in the trio tied for first, along with Supergirl and Strange Adventures. It seems to distill the essence of all that is actually cool about the character into one story. The story works because it’s directly tied to Flash’s specific powers and not a generic “good guy punching bad guy” story that can be overlayed onto just any hero. The layouts get progressively more inventive, and by the time you reach the page with concentric circles rippling out, you know you’ve seen brilliance. This strip also gets style points for wantonly trying to break the format and squeeze two concurrent strips into one, which finally converge.

Demon & Catwoman is also one of my least favorites. With a second reading, I will say that the art has a dark charge to it that is occasionally interesting to the eye, but at the end of the day this is basically a boring pairing of two dud characters in a wholly inconsequential story. I honestly had a hard time making it past page 2 or 3, when my eyes started to glaze over and my mind quickly drifted from whatever Arthurian hoo-ha was being talked about.

Hawkman comes really close to upsetting the “best of” trio I mentioned above, but it’ll have to settle for a very respectable 4th place. I like the way it melds swashbuckling Errol Flynn adventure with a convergence of technology and the natural world. It’s a very in your face story, with Baker actually restraining the caricature influence to his art. The JLA cameos are also fairly priceless. Batman’s indifference along with the dogged swipes at Aquaman were terrific.

Plastic Man is a one-pager that was included as bonus material and it’s totally a dud.

Creeper is also a one-pager and it was a uhh… poem thing. I didn’t get it. I know that these were commissioned by Mark Chiarello as back-up filler just in case one of the main artists missed a deadline, which thankfully didn’t happen, but they feel like wasted space in the precious real estate of this unique collected edition. We’ll see if we can fix that…

With that re-assessment behind us, I’d really like to get into dreamcasting my selections for a second volume. Keep in mind these are all my personal preferences, some of which are probably not very plausible. I’m sure I didn’t include your favorite character, writer, or artist, so yeah, that’s on me. Keep in mind this is MY personal list, so feel free to respond with your own selections rather than arguing with mine. But I guess I tried to keep them somewhat realistic in places and will offer up some of my explanations along with the selections. The first volume had 15 original pieces, with 2 back-up single page strips in the collected edition, so I’ll be copying that model, and even seeing if I can squeeze a little more out of it;

The New Gods by Paul Pope: Inviting him back for a follow up performance was easy for me since he is one of my favorite artists in general and, I believe, delivered the strongest piece in the first volume. I think Pope does the best when he is melding Jack Kirby style characters with his own brand of manic sci-fi storytelling, and though I’m partial to Mister Miracle, Big Barda, and Darkseid, the large cast of funky characters on New Genesis and Apokolips would give him plenty to play with. It’s very fertile ground that an inventive mind like his needs to exploit.

Supergirl by Brian Wood & Ryan Kelly: Whether the rumors that Wood is going to be writing Supergirl are true or not, I’d love to get him involved in one of these projects if I was in charge. Since I’m the would-be editor in this fictitious little assignment, I’d pair him with frequent collaborator Ryan Kelly for what would be sure to generate a magical off-type result.

Green Lantern by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely: GL seems to be one of those big gun characters that you have to include, so I would want to stray far from the first volume’s take, the current look and feel of the comics, the vibe of the impending movie, and offer audiences a broader interpretation of the franchise all at the same time. If you have such mission specific parameters and want something truly different, sticking the Drunken Scotsman and his artistic ward together on a project isn’t a bad approach. I’d want them to stray from the expected and do something like the old Green Lantern: Mosaic series starring John Stewart. The GL property really is a limitless storytelling engine, so they should just be locked in a room and go crazy with this.

Doom Patrol by Joe Casey & JH Williams III: Doom Patrol seems like one of those properties that is ripe for a reboot, since the last couple have bombed. Casey seems to be making a bit of a return to comics lately and if anyone remembers the book Automatic Kafka that he did at WildStorm, then this quirky team has tons of potential. Williams has the type of formalism when constructing a page that would juxtapose interestingly with Casey’s deconstructionist tendencies. I’m guessing they could wring out a surprising examination that could finally leave a definitive mark on these characters.

New Teen Titans by Kurt Busiek & Cliff Chiang: After the debacle that was the Teen Titans story in the first volume, I really have an urge to do it right. I picture a revisit to a throwback “lost tale” featuring the cast of the classic run by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Busiek has the gravitas to make this reverberate with a modern audience and Chiang has just the right emotional gloss to his art to make it shine.

House of Mystery by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Tom NeelyANDHouse of Secrets by Devin Grayson & Julia Gfrorer: Ok, this is where we get very experimental by altering the format ala Flash in the first volume, and by bringing in some indie artists to shake things up, in a manner similar to Marvel’s Strange Tales anthology. Tom Neely is an artist I love who frequently plays with horror motifs and could run wild. Palmiotti and Gray have proven themselves to be very versatile writers, from the first volume’s Supergirl, to something with occasional ethereal elements like Jonah Hex. With this experimental format, I’d want to basically cut the pages in half horizontally and have House of Mystery occupy the top half and House of Secrets running concurrently along the bottom half for the duration of the project. House of Secrets would pair long lost writer Devin Grayson with Julia Gfrorer, whose recent book Flesh & Bone published by Sparkplug Comics, has just the right sense of mystery and suspense that could shine in this format. Both of these artists deserve more visibility in the medium, and these titles would absolutely play to their strengths.

Nightwing & Oracle by Greg Rucka & Carla Speed McNeil: Of course, an anthology like this ought to include some of the big marquee characters, namely Bats, Supes, and WW. But, the beauty of a second volume is that you can stray a little since the big guns have already been established. With Dick assuming the Batman role for a long while now, it would be nice to rewind to the Nightwing era and highlight his relationship with Barbara Gordon as she sends him on a mission and is in communication from the clocktower. Heck, you can even have a Birds of Prey cameo if you want. Rucka is more than capable of handling the espionage feel I picture here, with books like Checkmate under his belt, not to mention his Queen & Country saga, one extended run penciled by, wait for it… Carla Speed McNeil, who brought a down-to-Earth sense of plausibility to some extraordinary events.

Superman by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris: I don’t think you can get away from including Superman in the same way we were able to play with the Batman line-up, so we really need a solid team who can wash the taste of the story in the first volume out of our collective mouths. Superman needs to be done right in this format, and anyone who read Ex Machina knows that this duo can handle the broad sweep of a big iconic character.

The Atom by Karl Kerschl & Juan Jose Ryp: I’m picturing the inventive storytelling that Kerschl (and Brendan Fletcher) delivered on The Flash in the first volume and pairing it with the wild-eyed, hyper-detailed, “Where’s Waldo?” art of Juan Jose Ryp. I’m picturing a couple of those big double page spreads the collected edition had that will have you searching frantically for a miniscule Ray Palmer. This could be amazing.

Zatanna by Darwyn Cooke & Riccardo Burchielli: This spot I originally had slated for Wonder Woman, but in a weird way I wouldn’t want to detract from the (some would say misguided) effort that Ben Caldwell brought to the first volume with her, so we can continue to branch out the character line-up and visit some other corners of the DCU. Zatanna is far more interesting to me as a character anyway; I’d want the classic storytelling of Darwyn Cooke, along with the gritty urbanism of Riccardo Burchielli to really go against type and deliver some debaucherous John Constantine-inspired take on Zatanna. Now that I mention it, shit, you could do an entire installment of Wednesday Comics: The Vertigo Edition, and really get crazy. Maybe that’ll be Volume 03?

Wildcat by Christopher Priest & Eduardo Risso: Anyone who caught Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther knows that he can handle an intelligent street level character like this, and once you pair it up with Risso’s ominous shadows and danger lurking just below the surface of any given panel, it’s a no-brainer.

Firestorm by Chuck Dixon & Nathan Fox: You’d have to have Jeromy Cox color this to bring out the insane life to Nathan Fox’s glimmering dangerous figures, and a solid writer like Chuck Dixon could certainly send him off an a wild adventure through the DCU. I’m telling you, this artist was born to draw a bright elemental character like Firestorm. If you need proof, take a look at what he did in the subversive Dark Reign: Zodiac series over at Marvel.

Red Tornado by Warren Ellis & Jason Shawn Alexander: Let’s grab one of the medium’s foremost sci-fi writers, give him a big red robot, and just let him loose. Jason Shawn Alexander’s art has the foreboding sense of kinetic energy that could really sell Ellis’ script and elevate a character who is sometimes used as sidekick, comic relief, kid’s fare. This could end up being one of the most disturbing stories here, I keep having this flash of a severed Red Tornado head sitting somewhere in the future, it’s found, and the history of how it got like that is told in flashbacks.

Legion of Super-Heroes by Mark Waid & Amanda Conner: Few writers have the encyclopedic knowledge of DCU history that Waid does, and I think he could bring an epic tale to the Legionnaires that would allow Conner to illustrate such a large cast with glee. It would be fun, adventurous, full of heart, and cut right to the heart of what has made the classic runs of these characters endure.

Scalphunter by Jason Aaron & Dave Gibbons: By now, I guess most people know that Aaron’s Vertigo classic Scalped began life as a Scalphunter pitch, so I think it would be interesting to return to those roots. However, you could probably sub in several “Western” genre characters here and easily strike gold, some more obscure than others. There’s Tomahawk, Bat Lash, Miss Liberty (if you want another female protagonist in this volume), or Captain Fear, which could generate a lot of weird fun. Captain Fear was a pirate, and with Dave Gibbons on board, maybe you get some interesting callbacks to the pirates in Watchmen. Aaron’s scripts are ruthless and gritty, so I think it would be interesting to temper that with Gibbons’ austere and classic style.


Elongated Man by Brian Azzarello & Joe Quinones: This would be the first of the one-page back-up stories that likely wouldn’t be seen until collected. I’d take volume one alum Brian Azzarello, and then give him a character he could straddle the line between crime and superheroics with. Fellow alum Joe Quinones (Green Lantern) has the stretchy, animated quality to his art that would be right at home with Ralph Dibny. I picture these one-pagers maybe being origin stories, and you could start a tradition of one-page origin stories (which DC has done in the past), but now in the Wednesday Comics format.

Captain Marvel by Neil Gaiman & Ryan Sook: This is the second one-page origin number. Frankly, I’m out on just about everything he’s done except Sandman, but I think Gaiman would do well with a mythologically/magically infused character like Billy Batson, and I’d want Sook to bring a serious tone to the character that some of the recent kid-friendly depictions have been lacking.

Dr. Fate by James Stokoe: I’m cheating here by including two extra options on these final two entries, but if you condense some of the extra sketch pages in the back of the collected edition to two artists per page, rather than just one, there’d actually be room enough to get 3 additional one-pagers in, for a total of 18 stories, rather than the 17 that the first volume had, and that’s with the exact same page count. If you caught Stokoe’s performance on Marvel’s Strange Tales with Silver Surfer, you’ll instantly see the potential here. If we did original stories rather than origins, I’d challenge him to pick right up where Paul Pope left off with the character in Strange Adventures.

Hawk & Dove by Rafael Grampa: Ditto the above, if you caught what Rafael Grampa did to Wolverine in Strange Tales, I think you’ll agree that he could breathe new life into these characters and they’d really cease being the jokes they’ve become.

Yeah. That would be the perfect Wednesday Comics for me.

4.27.11 Releases

Vertigo basically steals the show this week, with The New York Five #4 (DC/Vertigo) wrapping up its tumultuous run, and Scalped #48 (DC/Vertigo) continuing the series which has long been tied for first (with DMZ) in the best ongoing series category. I was underwhelmed by the first issue, but Marvel pushes FF #2 (Marvel) out by Jonathan Hickman, and I have a feeling this won’t be coming home unless something really catches my eye. Similarly, Fraction and Coipel give it another go with Mighty Thor #1 (Marvel) hitting shelves, but I doubt they can do anything to tempt me. I’m just not into Thor. I already received this next book from Amazon and thought it was great, so be sure to check out Jason Shiga’s newest semi-autobiographical work Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) published by Abrams ComicArts.


20th Century Boys: 01

There were a couple of different factors I detected here early on that differentiated this from most manga I’ve read and immediately made me like it. First off, it didn’t seem silly or like it was aimed solely at a demographic that was younger than me by 20 years. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its comedic moments, especially with some verbal sleights of hand like the introduction of the female dog handler – as just one example – which are truly organically funny, but it has heaping doses of gravitas, mystery, and poignant moments to balance it all out.

As far as characterization goes, I also really appreciated this strong sense of empathy for their fellow man that drives a lot of the emotional arcs. This first chunk of the story firmly plants itself as these mysterious connections begin to form between the childhood symbol, “Donkey’s” apparent demise, the influx of The Rolling Stones and the failed music aspirations, flashes back and sideways, and generally asks if it’s possible to construct our own self-fulfilling prophecy for the future. It’s unique and I’m intrigued. I also like how the pieces of the mystery are very slowly doled out for consumption, yet there is always a foreboding and ominous sense of danger present.

I’m not sure how old scribe Naoki Urasawa is, but I’d guess he was influenced by post-WWII reconstructionism in Japan, because the theme of a social entity defining its own destiny seems to be front and center. The overlay of benchmark achievements that defined the 20th Century, like the moon landing, inevitably beg the question as to what acts will inform the 21st Century for posterity. I guess I’m starting to see why this has been called the Japanese equivalent of Watchmen, because of all the layered elements being conducted simultaneously.

Visually, the figures are a little… and I hate this term, but, “cartoony” for me at times, yet there’s plenty of other glorious art to get distracted by. The backgrounds the figures inhabit are very realistic, and some of the shot compositions, like the silhouetted group near the lake, bristle with a sense of iconic importance. It was hard for me not to get flashbacks to some of the defining moments with the kids in Stand By Me when I saw those silhouettes.

There’s also an authenticity to Urasawa’s dialogue, with people speaking, and reacting to each other, in a way that plays realistic, and not artificial, staged, or contrived. Colloquial names like “Jiji Baba,” which I think loosely translates to “Old Man Granny,” are exactly the types of things that people concoct off the cuff.

The most important distinction between this and most comics I consume, and maybe this is true of most manga for all I know – it certainly holds true for Blade of the Immortal, which I’m quite familiar with – is that the pace is wildly different. 20th Century Boys really does operate in a long form storytelling mode, hell, we’re nearly 50 pages into the narrative before the symbol that fuels so much of the story is even really revealed. It allows the story to unfold more naturally, so that every nook and cranny of the characters’ lives is explored. The large mystery is then mined from the realism and details of every day life. It’s like there’s this 80/20 split between the relatively mundane and the eventual clues that set the mysterious plot into motion. This patient balance makes the fantastical all the more believable because it’s so rooted in the faux reality presented.

Speaking of long form storytelling, 20th Century Boys is currently on Volume 14(?) and I believe it’s set to go to Volume 24(?) of these digest sized installments. At this point, I’ve picked up Volumes 01 to 11, and am planning on jotting some ideas down here as I sporadically read the books and collect my thoughts. I don’t feel like they’re proper “reviews” per se because I’m really not even summarizing the plot, and am kinda’ assuming that people interested enough to read the review would probably have already read a series of books that’s been out and started for a while, so this’ll just be my general impressions.


4.20.11 Reviews

DMZ #64 (DC/Vertigo): [DMZ Countdown Clock™: 8 Issues Remaining] While on the one hand, it feels like this is merely a continuation of conversations already in motion, on the other hand there’s actually a lot of information being relayed here on multiple fronts. Matty is reeling with the news of Wilson, trying to unravel the news of Parco, and for maybe the first time since some of the more introspective parts of the M.I.A. arc, Matty is seeing himself as he truly is. He’s being more self-aware and operating with the type of objectivity (or at least trying to) that the clarity of time brings, in the space that allows reflection on events past. The way that Wood masterfully has Matty deliver the line “...and?” after a three-beat pause certainly implies neutrality and objectivity. It seems like the boy is finally growing into a man. In those satisfying newsfeeds, we also learn about Trustwell finally being charged with UN assassination, bits about the family of PFC Stevens from the Day 204 Massacre, and even a quick snippet about everyone’s favorite man on the music scene, DJ Random Fire. One really has to wonder though, what the end game is here for the FSA. It doesn’t make sense as to why they would give up Parco, when they have proof of their position, Parco’s innocence, and the wrongdoing of the USA. I can certainly see this from the POV of the US, taking out the FSA leadership and Parco in one swoop is the proverbial “two birds with one stone,” but damn, what’s the FSA up to? The arc is entitled “Free States Rising” after all… I guess only time will tell. More than anything, this whole issue really made me smile. This sensation that I used to get in some of the recent one-shot issues is now finally occurring in the main Matty Roth narrative. It’s this – I got the sense that Brian Wood is systematically shutting down story threads and individual characters, closing up shop in that hyper-organized way that gives emotional closure to his loyal readers who have stuck with one of the longest-running Vertigo series, and one of the most socially relevant series, from any publisher, in recent memory. Grade A.

Note: If you haven’t heard about it by now, do check out the new site LIVE FROM THE DMZ, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of DMZ, with interviews, never-before-seen art, and more. We’ll be posting new content for each volume of the DMZ saga, counting all the way down until the final issue ships in December. Currently, there’s a bit of a welcome essay from me, an introductory interview, content for DMZ VOLUME 01: ON THE GROUND, and plenty of extra goodies scattered throughout. I honestly don’t believe there’s another site quite like it and it’s done with the full cooperation of Brian Wood.

Uncanny X-Force #8 (Marvel): Billy Tan is on art chores for this issue and he seems to be doing his best ape of Jerome Opena and/or Esad Ribic. This art is solid, and it doesn’t look much like his “Rise & Fall of the Sh'iar Empire” work, for which I guess(?) he is most known for. He renders all the characters well, nails the astral projection bits, does a great “Jim Lee-era” Psylocke, and the coloring is as good as always. Rick Remender’s writing is the real treat though; not only does he have a solid grasp on all of the personalities, not only do all of the characters get their moments to shine, but he isn’t afraid of simple amusement like Wolverine calling Deadpool “ding-dong” in the middle of his recon report. Fantomex is very close to stealing the show in this book, and I think Remember has come the closest to living up to the potential that inhabits this character since the moment Grant Morrison created him. The only spot it fell down a little for me was the anchor being used by Warren and Bets… the dice just seemed a little Inception-y to me. For the most part, Remender is clearly having fun writing this, and that makes us have fun too. The character banter is not only self-aware about its own convoluted X-Men continuity, but the cast also realizes that they are supposedly existing as anti-heroes, so it tickles a certain meta-button. Deathlok’s view of the world, that all timelines essentially lead to either man-made apocalypse, or the rise of big-A, Apocalypse incarnate, makes the whole premise of the series seem futile. Only then do we realize that in the face of overwhelming odds and seeming futility, the true heroes are the ones who rise up to fight anyway. Grade A.

Invincible Iron Man #503 (Marvel): This issue really feels like MIDDLE. Doc Ock is certainly a creepy and manipulative figure in it for his own ego and needs. I liked seeing Tony duped because he assumes that honesty is being used as a ground rule, but Doc Ock casually dismisses that silly notion. The Pimacher and Cababa sequence is heart-wrenching, and that’s a real testament to what Fraction has done with this title, make us care about intrinsically C-list characters so much. Something about the issue just kept feeling off to me, and of course, it’s the Fear Itself tie-in. I guess this issue shipped late(?) or the series has just gotten late in general and slipped off track(?) because events here seem to pre-date Fear Itself #1, which is already out. It doesn’t sync up at all. Last time we saw Thor, he was hauled off in chains by Odin, yet here he is all peachy sitting in a throne room or some shit and Odin isn’t anywhere to be found. That’s just kinda’ awful planning and/or execution of yet another big event. The back-up with Howard Chaykin is a clever premise about the meeting of Howard and Maria Stark, but if you try to follow it from scene to scene it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If it’s Stark’s hotel and Stark’s casino as he insists, then why would he be physically assaulted by Stane’s henchmen multiple times and not just have them thrown out by the security he mentions? I like Chaykin’s art, but there is something glossy and over-the-top about it, which risks pushing people out of the story. Grade B+.

Miscellaneous: So, I didn’t end up purchasing the LSH: Legion of the Damned book, as much as I love it, because it turns out that there was a printing error, so that the four chapters of the story are printed completely out of order. First off, that’s really a ridiculous cock-up and baffles me that nobody caught it until a couple days before it arrived in stores. I mean, the chapter breaks clearly indicate which issue is next, which part of the story it is, etc. If those visual cues weren’t enough, all you have to do is bother to read the damn story and you can obviously tell it doesn’t flow correctly. On top of that, DC specifically asked retailers to destroy them and not put them out for sale on their street date. But, what does Good Ol’ Sea Donkey do? Of course, he has copies for sale. I don’t know why this pissed me off as much as it did. It’s not that I suspect any unscrupulous business practices on Sea Donkey’s part, not like he’s trying to cash in on a “rare” printing error. I think it bugs me because it’s just more evidence of his woeful ignorance, disorganization, and ineptitude. He either didn’t read, acknowledge, or retain the instruction from DC. I guess I’d have more respect for a deliberate slimy schemer than a hapless dumb donkey, because at least cunning for a buck takes wherewithal. I also didn’t buy the DHP #1 anthology. Concrete has always been boring to me, the Xerxes preview was like two measly pages and honestly I’ve been a little out on Frank Miller ever since I saw what a drunken buffoon he was at the Eisner Awards a couple years ago, Chaykin did some passé thing with strippers, there was a generic Star Wars story with sub-par art, blah blah interviews, and a cute Carla Speed McNeil story… and I’m supposed to pay $8 for all that? Psh.

Being @ Poopsheet Foundation

Check out my latest review over at Poopsheet Foundation.


Grinding It Out

And Then One Day #9: Page 14 (Elephant Eater): Panel 1: This first panel is a glorious half page shot, and you don’t really see many vertical half page shots in comics anymore, typically if an artist goes for a half page shot, it’s going to be horizontal, so I appreciated the rarity of this panel right from the start. From a technical perspective, I like the camera placement and the bird’s eye view it allows of the environment. It’s another of these really grand shots that Ryan has been lavishing on us over the last couple of pages. Surprisingly I don’t have a lot to say. It’s like eating lobster, yup, it’s buttery, delicate, and delicious. What’d you expect? What more do you want from me? The panel is full of depth, texture, and energy.

Panel 2: This is probably the panel that’s come the closest to achieving a three dimensional effect as it lays flat on the page. The line weight around Dr. Polkinhorn and Ryan is so thick and we’re at such an equal eye to eye level with the characters that they practically jump out of the panel. Maybe it’s just my computer screen, but it’s almost as if the background, especially toward the upper left, is slightly fuzzy and blurry, giving that sense of motion, that the characters are jumping from their two dimensional confines. I really like this angle and the scale of the figures, which seems to be another one that’s new… it’s not the “regular” Ryan size that we see in the final two panels, and it’s not the smaller scale we see in the first panel, but somewhere in between.

Panel 3 & 4: It seems I’m always trying to reconcile these panels with the diamond pattern background (my description, not Ryan’s), which we haven’t seen for a while. I don’t mind this background or these panels in a vacuum, but when they come right after a long sequence of amazing panels, it’s difficult to like them as much! They’re fairly plain, but I do like the way that Ryan frames them on the page, how the character placement bounces from right to left as they converse back and forth with each other. It’s a well played layout that tricks us into believing that they’re facing each other even though they occupy different panels. It seems like this conversation is winding down, but I know we’re a little more than half way through the book, so I’m really curious to see what happens next!


4.20.11 Releases

The name “DHP” sure takes me back to a different time in my comics reading life. Dark Horse Presents #1 (Dark Horse) is 80 pages (and no ads) for $7.99, so hopefully the pieces by Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Richard Corben, Paul Chadwick, Frank Miller, Carla Speed McNeil, and more! will pass the casual flip test and make it home. It would be great to see one of the larger publishers actually do the impossible and sustain an anthology book. Also out this week is DC Comics Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes: Legion of the Damned #1 (DC), which is a ridiculous mouthful of a title, yet it still stands as my all time absolute favorite LSH story and is the only time I’ve ever purchased the book regularly. This $7.99, 96-page volume collects Legionnaires #78-79 and Legion of Super-Heroes #123-124, written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, with art by Olivier Coipel. Abnett & Lanning were acclaimed for some of their Marvel Cosmic work, but this series predates that by roughly 10 years. Similarly, Coipel has made a big splash at Marvel on various projects, but this is some of his finest work, in a sketchier, looser, darker style. While it’s interesting to think DC had the better projects from these three, Marvel ultimately pulled a coup by signing all of them to exclusive deals. In any case, it’s a great jumping on point for this run of the series, since the hardcover collection of Legion Lost, the 12 issue series immediately following these events, is due out in June. You might have also heard, there’s this little series called DMZ that I think is pretty good. DMZ #64 (DC/Vertigo) is out this week, which means there are only 8 issues left! Marvel offers up a double tap of their two finest titles with Invincible Iron Man #503 (Marvel) and Uncanny X-Force #8 (Marvel) both appearing in stores. Let’s hope the Fear Itself crossover doesn’t cock things up too badly.


This is just a quick update to let you all know that DMZ VOLUME 01: "ON THE GROUND" is now broadcasting LIVE FROM THE DMZ. Hopefully you're all subscribed to the RSS feed at the site or following Brian Wood on Twitter to keep up to date on when the latest content is released during the countdown to the final issue in December 2011.


Looting A Dead Corpse: 02

Yesterday, it was back to Borders for me since they ratcheted up their deep discount sale even further to 40% off most items, and even 50% on some things, like graphic novels. As I dug through the fairly picked over graphic novel section, some store workers were discussing consolidating the manga and graphic novel sections, which had been segregated, in anticipation of a busy weekend. They’re probably down to about half of the stock they started with, so if people are as ravenous with 40-50% off as they’ve been with 20-30% off, I don’t expect it to last much longer. Here’s what made it home, along with some of the pricing notes;

20th Century Boys: 01 & 02 (VIZ Media): If there’s one gaping hole in my comic book knowledge base it’s probably manga. I kept up with Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal when Dark Horse began putting it out in the those digest sized collections, but the endurance trial this long running series presents sure is a bear. I only got to about volume 15 or so before I gave in and just never went back. I’ve also read everything I can get my hands on from Yoshihiro Tatsumi and feel quite informed about him and his work, but that’s really about it for me and manga. Most of it seemed fairly off-putting for one reason or another, but I’ve always wanted to give it another chance. I continually hear great things about 20th Century Boys, not the least of which is from David Brothers over at 4th Letter. Naoki Urasawa’s epic story about kids trying to save their future has been called the Watchmen of Japanese Comics and has even seen translation to a three part live action film. Since I’m a sucker for slick trade dress and these volumes were regularly priced at $12.99, but were marked down to around $7 with tax, I jumped in. I bought volume 01 and 02, devoured the first one last night, loved it, ordered volumes 03, 04, and 05 this morning with some Amazon credit, and will probably hit Borders again since they had everything up to volume 11. Shoot, I’m even eying the films on Amazon and considering doing a series of reviews on each volume as I read them.

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit: 03 (VIZ Media): Since I was in the mood for trying new things and giving manga another shot, I examined the racks and found this interesting gem by Motoro Mase about a secret government program managing population control. It looks exciting, has the gravitas I’ll usually warm to, and the premise seemed really unique. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. This was also regularly priced at $12.99 and only ran me $7, tax included! Borders didn't have volume 01 or 02, but did have a few copies left of volumes 04, 05, and 06 if I want to take advantage.

Hot Gimmick: 01 (VIZ Media): This was the last thing that looked even mildly interesting, because of its frank dialogue about sex and bold premise of social slavery. It was regularly priced at $17.99, but I got it for just under $10 with tax, for a whopping 550+ pages since it’s one of the VIZBIG Editions. Borders had a gap in their run, missing volume 02, but did have multiples remaining of 03, 04, and 05. I skimmed the first 20 or so pages late last night, and I’m not sure if it’s gonna’ work for me. Miki Aihara’s book is definitely in the shojo space, so I’m hardly the right demographic, and is written heavy-handed thematically and illustrated in a fairly simplistic manner, but I’ll give it a go.

Sense & Sensibility HC (Marvel): I’m hardly a Jane Austen fan, but you really can’t go wrong with Sonny Liew’s art. This was regularly priced at $19.99, and I picked it up for around $11 total. If nothing else, maybe I’ll save it for my daughter.


4.13.11 Reviews

Sweets #5 (Image): What else is there to say about Sweets that I haven’t already said? It’s a great conclusion to a great series. Sweets runs this balance between being about subtlety and authenticity. When subtle, you’ll notice small details like the way the sun hangs in the sky, the way the city is drenched in amber and sepia tones, the strong glares that impart meaning, small gestures that carry the emotional weight of the story, the way that paranoia about the inbound storm colors everything, and the general earthy feeling that is raw, yet fertile storytelling ground. Creator Kody Chamberlain suggested somewhere (Blogger? Twitter?) that his audience should re-read the preceding four issues before they consumed the tasty conclusion, and I’m inclined to agree. The overarching saga rewards the attentive reader and mines all that has come before during the flashback scenes and with throwaway lines, heck I’d almost forgotten about the little Bird Flu problem, maybe that’s on me, or maybe that’s a result of the bimonthly schedule. Ah well, it will cease to be a concern once collected. When Sweets displays its sense of authenticity, I believe it’s at its best. We see a cop using a nice bit of deductive reasoning skills on the investigative front. We see a bit with an oyster shucker that just screams New Orleans. We see a seasoned cop watching his backgrounds before he takes a shot. We see Chamberlain continuing to use those black transition headers that remind me of what Christopher Priest used to do in Black Panther, which makes us feel like Chamberlain has been at this longer than he actually has. Notice how when the shootout ensues, it immediately sucks the color out and phases to black and white. If you talk to most people who’ve been in a shootout, they’ll recall strange perception issues about time slowing down, or getting tunnel vision, or a sharp sense of color loss… how does Chamberlain know this stuff? I don’t really care as long as it rings true. Honestly, it’s why an insanely small typo like “hasmat” instead of “HazMat” just kills me, because it was so close to utter perfection. The Katie stuff at the diner is heartbreaking and though perhaps the ultimate denouement does lean heavily on a last minute epiphany that ties all the loose ends together, I remain sold on Sweets as a success and Kody Chamberlain as a thrilling new talent to watch. Is it possible that a 5 issue mini-series that was a favorite in 2010 could also be a favorite in 2011? If I were a wagering sort of fellow, I’d be making my bet for its appearance on My 13 Favorite Things of 2011 list. I’m also actually starting to wonder if Kody’s mom is named “Mary,” because the way he burst onto the scene was a bit of an immaculate conception, and the way he writes, draws, letters, inks, colors, and designs the book is the type of water-into-wine miracle that could help save our crossover written-by-committee superhero-sinning industry. Grade A.

Northlanders #39 (DC/Vertigo):
Brian Wood and Simon Gane deliver the finale to the The Siege of Paris and it starts with an amazing cover. Massimo Carnevale turns in a performance that looks like a lost Conan piece from the 70’s, only better, because it’s so drenched in color and anguish. I kind of miss those old school covers that let you know exactly what you were getting into. Gane turns in quite a performance as well, with some full page shots that mix the style of Sergio Aragones and someone like Geoff Darrow, the sheer volume of figures, the small scale, and pervasive detail are almost overwhelming at times. Gane’s page and panel composition is also worth commenting on. His panels are dense with activity, but never cramped, and I like the way he habitually uses small gutters to maximize the page real estate he gets to work with. Smart. There’s a part of me that feels like when I turn a Simon Gane page, I’m going to be suddenly transported to the Getty and see their impressive illustrated manuscript collection. It’s almost as dense as one of those mosaic type pages. Brian Wood uses one of his go-to themes here about changing times and the lead character’s sense of identity. The dialogue is minimalist at times as Mads and Abbo the monk alternate their telling of the tale. They document a story about inborn fatalism, honor in battle, and reconciling one’s only place in life as a warrior. War can be many things, addictive, part of a given culture, but near impossible to give up once your soul is conditioned to only accept mission objectives. As Jean-Luc Picard once said, “you can make all the right decisions in life and sometimes still lose. This isn’t weakness, it’s life.” Grade A.

Butcher Baker The Righteous Maker #2 (Image): This is really an example of the Image Comics that I love. It’s the same Image Comics that allowed Fell, Casanova, and rivaled the heyday of WildStorm when they were churning out Desolation Jones and Joe Casey’s own Automatic Kafka and Wildcats incarnations. It takes chances, lets creators create without restraint, and it’s just good to see the industry cutting loose a little again. In the last issue our anti-hero blew up the prison housing all the supervillains, yet some survive. We see El Sushi, White Lightning, Abominable Snowman, Angerhead, The Absolutely, and Jihad Jones congregate to exact revenge. This crew has got to be one of the most entertaining groups of villains that I’ve seen in recent memory. Arnie B. Willard has chance encounter at a roadside diner, and the whole time I’m wondering who the heck colored this issue?! It’s great, and it’s Mike Huddleston inking and coloring his own work. He’s shoveling primary colors onto the pages, mixing in what looks like washes, and it all really pops. Casey is doing what he does best, subverting superhero tropes, specifically the American Hero archetype, but it’s not just clinical deconstructionism, it’s also really fun! His backmatter essays are always a joy to read, but I do fear sometimes that they’re a little ego fueled. The interviewing himself bit comes off as pretentious, but the meat of the writing about the need for creator owned comics, art for the sake of art, and blurring the line between amateur and professional in the industry are all well received. Grade A.

Uncanny X-Force #7 (Marvel): I’ve been struggling to accept this Deathlok Nation arc as relevant or necessary, but Rick Remender and Esad Ribic do their damnedest to try and change my mind. Remender seems to be quickly returning to the type of witty biting humor that attracted me to his writing in the first place. Deadpool is again a delight, going from fascination with a gun that will shrink and enlarge anything to a feigned masturbation that somehow snuck by the editorial goalie. But, it’s not just Deadpool, Fantomex and the entire cast all get their individual moments to shine while working as a cohesive whole and one of the best strike teams modern comics has seen. The team should be totally dysfunctional, dissonance existing between almost every character and every other character, yet they always pull it out, or so it seems. The last page reveal perhaps confirms some suspicions that have been flying around the interwebs. I keep harping on Ribic simply because he’s not Jerome Opena, and while I don’t believe Ribic will ever reach the level of confection that Opena does for me, that’s just me. I miss the sketchy details of Opena’s lines. Ribic’s pencils seem at times a little to clean, his style a little too sterile for me, but in terms of actual storytelling mechanics it’s totally adequate. He also draws eyes and the various expressions they can carry extremely well. The book’s got good banter, well choreographed action, the fun of the team being hunted by cyborg versions of themselves, and it’s all a little better than mindless popcorn entertainment. Yeah, it hums with the glee of a summer movie, but it also has a profound heart and is a lot smarter. Grade A-.


Show & Tell: A Collection of Comics About Teaching & Learning

Show & Tell (Ninth Art Press): Special thanks to Dan Mazur for sending me this copy of “A Collection of Comics About Teaching & Learning,” which houses some creator names that will be familiar to anyone that’s seen Mazur’s other editorial efforts with the Boston Comics Roundtable. Show & Tell explores a territory that is capable of highlighting the dynamic of the generational gap like nothing else – the classroom. I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking about comics in high schools, and I’m always amazed what I learn about myself and younger generations in the process. This book was coordinated in conjunction with the New England Comic Arts in the Classroom (NECAC) Conference, and includes some shorts that are fact and some that are fiction, from settings around the world. As we dive in, I’ll just say that I love the fact that the editorial crew included a Rodolphe Topffer strip; his quaintly named “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck” is a strip I use in some of my presentations to denote the 1842 demarcation of comics as we know them in the United States. It’s pleasant to see this classroom setting is a fairly universal theme which has already spanned centuries.

The Five Faces of Student Conferences
by Rebecca Viola is an interesting play on itself. All of the faces possess essentially the same blank expression, suggesting in a tongue-in-cheek fashion that adults have absolutely no idea how their messages are being received by their students. It was a strong burst of craft that immediately sets the tone for the whole book. Grade A.

Strays by Lindsay Moore & Ponju is a touching family tribute, with a wide-eyed manga-informed style to the art. Something felt a little distracting to me, and I realized it was the lettering. The caption font was, well, I’m not sure if it’s the much maligned Comic Sans, but it sure looks like it. I tend to prefer the subtle variations of hand lettering and the warmth of the imprecision that human touch conveys. As is, the font here feels a little cold and clinical for a piece that’s otherwise quite personal. Grade B.

Teaching High School by Marty Moyer possessed a great sense of irony, full of clever lines, and the dangers of honesty during interviewing. I enjoyed the quirky attractive art style that depicted common foibles during the first day of teaching. Grade B+.

Wondermark by David Malki is rendered in a retro Victorian style. I liked the second of the four strips very much, about unofficially auditing a large lecture hall course and the influx of corporate speak regarding individual learning needs. Yet, the other strips didn’t quite connect with me, relying on last minute word play that kinda’ fell flat. Grade B.

Yo Miss by Lisa Wilde reveals real life NYC encounters at parent/teacher conferences. It proves that fact remains stranger than fiction, and is a scary view into parenting and the social dynamics of second chance students. It all seems so overwhelming to teachers. I enjoyed the art style quite a lot, but the silhouetted figures on the black background had that haloing affect that sometimes plagues new artists. Otherwise, this is a strong and emotionally triumphant denouement. Grade A.

These F-ing Kids by Box Brown had a couple of small inconsistencies. In the TOC, it’s actually listed as “Those F…ing Kids,” so there’s that. The art itself is a wonderful hybrid of styles, reminiscent of Kevin Huizenga, or blown-up Chris Ware figures. The litany of bad experiences compacted into one story definitely made me chuckle. Grade A.

Substitute by Jess Lonergan tells of the solitary position substitute teachers are saddled with and the abuse they get. It’s got a clean and open style, and I particularly liked the panels of the teacher getting blasted with questions, but there’s no real hook or zinger that will make this super memorable. Grade B.

4 Myths About Teacher’s Unions by Kevin Moore has a weird unopened parenthesis just dangling in the second panel, yet I liked the very direct manner in which some of these myths are addressed. It separates fact from fiction, so don’t go perpetuating falsehoods, no matter how catchy the sound byte! In terms of typos, it’s also got a “thru”’ vs. “through,” but is overall a fairly strong one-pager with a good sense of caricature. Grade B.

George Enjoys Billiards Apparently by Alexander Danner & Dan Mazur is full of terrific art. The style is very accomplished in terms of framing panels and what looks to be ink washes. Mazur’s panel to panel storytelling is always solid, and with that under his belt, the stylistic flourishes commence. Take a look at the sly little things in the background, such as the teacher erasing the credits for the piece on the board behind him. It’s another piece that proves oddities have to be real, some are so off that they just can’t be faked. The ear for dialogue is also spot on, capturing the way students of this age really speak. Grade A.

Iruma by Ben DiMaggio & Len White is a fantastic tale of teaching abroad and the clashing cultures that ensue. The stripped-down art style reminded me in places of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. I enjoyed the inconclusive ending, something that real life is so filled with. At first, this piece seems deceptively straightforward, but it’s one of the group that I thought about the most after putting the book down. Grade A.

Master Class by Alejandro Yegros suggests that teaching is a battle to be waged. The lean lanky figures and soft rounded thick inks of the backgrounds make for a nice contrast. I enjoyed the notion of maintaining mental control of the classroom because people ultimately respect dominance. The art is occasionally simplistic, but it works for a tongue-in-cheek story of this magnitude. Grade B+.

Multiple Intelligences & Comics Education by Marek Bennett does have a rudimentary art style, but is packs an entertaining punch. It’s highly informative regarding the 8 different types of human intelligence and how we use them. Bennett crams as much as possible onto the page, but it flows well. We learn how most schools typically don’t use intelligence clusters, but prefer to rely on single tracks. It was articulate and fun, long enough to develop its ideas and deliver them squarely, and ends with a clever satirical standardized test, which surely counts as extra credit in the opinion of this reviewer. In a book about education, it was the most educational and I really enjoyed it. Grade A+.

A Merry Abecediary by Cherry Ogata is a quick fun alphabetic chart that doesn’t do a whole lot more than the title suggests. Grade B-.

School in the Sea by Lewis Carroll & Doug DeRocher is an interesting collaboration that pits Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with Dan Mazur adapting and lettering, and a new interpretation by DeRocher. It’s the only full color piece in Show & Tell, with a blocky and angular mosaic style, juxtaposing those hard strokes with whimsical content to great success. Grade A.

What is the Answer? by Caitlin Plovnick again addresses the sea of different aptitudes and attitudes present in the classroom. It paints a picture of a pretty uphill battle for our poor underappreciated educators. Grade B.

Good Progress by Line O is a story from a creator I distinctly remember from a previous Boston Comics Roundtable anthology. The style is acute and instantly recognizable. This story is comedic and exaggerated, but based on actual events depicting cultural clash in the school setting. There’s a healthy sense of irony balanced with wonder, but I couldn’t help feeling this art wasn’t as tight and refined as previous attempts I’ve seen. Yet, still one of the most memorable styles present. Grade A-.

Open Structure by Dan Mazur sees the creator employing a smaller scale style, depicting the open structure teaching method. There’s no formal lesson plan, a brush with SDS protests in the Vietnam War Era, and even a failed sit-in. It’s charming and crazy all at once, with a few well-played flashbacks about school age kids reminiscing in the present. There are always clever touches in Mazur’s art, here it’s the free form panels perfectly in sync visually with the theme of story. The piece feels less like a short and more feature length. I enjoyed this as bit of investigative nostalgia, as the grown kids piece together what ended their hippie teacher’s tenure. Grade A+.

El Maestro by Roho illustrates the Varelian Reform in the educational composition of Uruguay. The art style is bulbous, with heavy inks entertaining as they educate. There was something vaguely “Adrian Tominesque” about the style. The running scroll at the bottom of the page provided a historical backdrop, but the main story above was a little dense with text at times. Grade B+.

Hydrochloric Acid by Aya Rothwell utilized a sketchy art style, and played a nice balance between depicting a scary, yet teachable, moment in the classroom. Grade B+.

Robots Kill Vampires by Ron LeBrasseur and Emily LeBrasseur is a story about creating a story. It’s cute, but not terribly informative or poignant. If you've seen the indie comic Axe Cop, you might enjoy the ultimate tale. Even if it’s not terribly strong individually, I do feel it’s placement is wise, a nice way to end the set, by examining the act of creation. It’s also got “cemetery” spelled as “cemetary,” which is a typo I’ve been spotting in a lot of work recently. So, teachers, get on that! Grade B.

Overall, if you average out these grades, the holistic package is right on the border between an A- and a B+. I’m inclined to bump it up because of the difficulty of the task involved. It’s amazing to think you can take 20+ creators and produce an anthology that never dips its toe into the middling Grade C territory that most anthologies are prone to. As was the case with the last Boston Comics Roundtable anthology I reviewed, helmed in part by Dan Mazur, the grades are mostly A’s and B’s, with a couple “+” marks thrown in for good measure. It’s an astounding accomplishment; these guys consistently produce the most consistent anthologies. It’s a segment of the industry that’s widely known for being uneven, yet they beat the odds time and time again. This is how you do anthology comics right. Grade A-.

Grinding It Out

And Then One Day #9: Page 13 (Elephant Eater): Panel 1: Ryan has been struggling a tad with his weekly production schedule of late, but with such an ambitious self-imposed deadline, I applaud his determination as he’s rounded the halfway mark and is now headed for the finish line. If, like me, you believe that art takes time and quality vastly supersedes quantity, then this page is well worth the wait. What Ryan holds back in terms of dialogue, he loses all restraint for when it comes to fully realizing his art. It doesn’t seem possible, but the panels just keep getting better and better as the pages progress. There’s more depth in the visual field, more variation in the line weight, more variation to the figure scale, and more fully rendered environments. This panel pulls my eye right to our protagonist duo because of the thick ink lines that surround them. From there, my eye is drawn back to the shrubs on the left, right where the curvy pathway meets the straight walkway (and there’s a squirrel!). It’s almost like this becomes a little Choose Your Own Adventure from that point forward. You can go right or left here; my eye seems to want to first go left along the tree line, and then over to the half figure walking off camera. Let’s talk about that half figure; I don’t believe there’s anything occurring at random here. The choices here would have been a) no figure, b) full figure, or c) the half figure we have. Option A, no figure, would have certainly been an easier artistic decision. Let’s call it what it is, it would have been one less thing to draw when Ryan was already slipping behind. It would have also left the panel unbalanced (notice how this figure is mirrored by the garbage cans which anchor the other side of the panel), and it also would have forced the walkway to stop right there at the panel border. We would have gotten no sense of the world extending beyond what we see. Now, Option B, a full figure, could have balanced the page nicely and it would have even punctuated the panel border I suppose, but it would not have had the same effect that a half figure does. It would have been acceptable, sure, but not artistically clever. Option C, the one Ryan settled on, is absolutely the grandest choice possible. Not only does it balance the page nicely from a graphic design standpoint, and let your eye reconcile the weight and balance of the panel vis-à-vis the garbage cans, but what happens in your mind’s eye is that you compose the rest of that figure. Ryan knows about the concept of “closure,” where sometimes the most important thing that happens is the action in between panels or off in the panel gutters. Example: Panel 1 has a guy throwing a ball at the second guy. Panel 2 is the second guy wincing in pain and clutching his head. We never actually see the ball strike the second guy in the head, but our brain provided the extrapolation from the data present and automatically closed the action to make the sequence work. That’s closure in an interactive medium. So given the three options of lazy, acceptable, and clever, Ryan goes all the way. Back to the page, in the panel gutter to the left we fill in the other half of that character, then we finish his walk on a pathway that doesn’t exist, except in our brain. This action extends the world, and suddenly we’re inhabiting that world now, it pulls us in and surrounds us. Holy crap, that’s only half the panel and I’m still rambling! Yet another part of me wants to take the opposite route and wants to go right on that walkway. It wants to cross the bridge, round the bend, and attend my next class in that far away building tucked in the corner. Folks, this is a brilliant panel in terms of composing a shot and world-building with rich detail and purpose behind every line.

Panel 2: I immediately notice the crosshatching on the underside of the clouds. It provides a real sense of shape and form. It’s almost as if we’re pulled under them, and it becomes a unique, slightly forced, perspective shot. It’s evident with subtle techniques like this that Ryan is deliberately stretching his craft and trying something new, something more intense, not just in every issue, but on every page, and in almost every panel. I think that aficionados of Ryan’s work will be able to one day look back on this as a turning point and mark everything that came before this issue as one period, while marking everything that came after as another distinct period in his evolving style. I’m primarily a story guy, so for me to be so captivated by the art and not notice so much that this is a very quiet time without any of those pesky words really is something. It’s just two people walking around. It’s two people who enjoy talking quite a bit, so it’s a nice respite and provides a sense of the reflective nature of this issue. This leisurely stroll is a moment of contemplation, and calls us back to the fact vs. fiction in autobiography discussion, the selective representation of dialogue, and it’s nice for us to be able to add our own thoughts as we reflect along with the characters.

Panel 3: Ryan changes the camera perspective yet again, reduces the figure scale yet again, and it becomes obvious that he’s always engaging us, and always challenging us as readers to adapt to the artistry on display. Without these variations in camera placement, perspective, and scale, it would all become routine. It would be the typical talking heads sequence that plagues so many comics and would begin to bore us. And once an audience is bored, they get pushed out of a work, something that never happens in this series. I also like those very few stray marks that give the grass texture. It has density, it has life. This shot gives us a sense of the sheer size of the campus. You probably wouldn’t think that a book like this could generate a cliffhanger, but I’m on the edge of my seat over here waiting to see where this goes story, and also where Ryan will let his craft take us next.


Don't ***** Or You'll Miss It

Blink: So Far (ONWARDStudio): This title is a nicely produced package, marking writer/artist Max Ink’s first feature length foray into the medium. It collects disparate mini-comics and anthology contributions from 2004 to 2010, featuring his unlikely female duo Sam and Blink. Ink populates the strips with the type of worldly observation that exists not merely for the sake of itself, but in the tradition of the best alternative comics. These human interactions explore the world around us in an effort to better understand our current social condition. At times early on, Ink’s dialogue felt a bit staged; it didn’t roll off the speaker’s tongues in a natural way. I caught myself occasionally grumbling “this isn’t the way real people talk,” but as the strips progressed, I saw Ink’s ear for dialogue improving considerably and that concern faded. The greatest strength of this creator in my opinion is his gift for the artistry of expressions and panel composition. The figure work, most notably the facial features, is in a space inhabited by craftsmen like Terry Moore or Carla Speed McNeil. Max Ink is able to convey an entire emotional spectrum in just one static shot. The best example is a full page shot of his wiped out protagonist slumped over a desk having succumbed to writer’s block. There’s no dialogue, no words whatsoever, but he’s able to perfectly emote the feelings that anyone who has struggled with a creative endeavor can immediately identify with. It’s the kind of self-evident page I’d want to own. The overall pen and ink style is full of fine line detail, painstaking cross-hatching, and attention to light sources, shadows, and negative space. Ink isn’t afraid to dabble/pay homage to the wry understated comedy of something like Calvin & Hobbes, and also experiments with social intersection. If you follow the life of the Indians baseball cap, it’s an interesting culmination of the stories of two sets of characters. Ink touches on our motivations in life, achieving that delicate work/life balance, and it literally all comes crashing down in the “lightning and loss” sequence (my words, not his), which is really touching. At first I found myself thinking that Sam was a little unlikable, especially upon their meeting of musician Hank, and that Blink was perhaps a little too naïve, but as these love/hate relationships continued, I remembered that it’s realism which disturbs us, and the ability to evoke such a reaction usually meets my generic definition of “art.” There was another series like this that ran for years featuring two quirky females, and it was called Strangers In Paradise. Ink has the talent and the style that is capable of creating such an opus given the right commitment. For now, I’m glad to see that Ink jumped in to “work with what he’s got right now,” because I’m anxiously awaiting more. Grade A.