April 16, 2009

 

The last time Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill explored the universe of their League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they emerged with The Black Dossier, an imaginative but largely impenetrable romp through centuries of varied pop-culture forms and iconic characters. Next up: Century, a three-part graphic novel that tells self-contained stories of Moore and O’Neill’s literary League, set in 1910, 1968, and 2008. The 80-page Century: 1910 (Top Shelf) kicks off the epic with arguably the most accessible LXG story Moore has ever written—one so straightforward that it almost seems a sop to all the fans who complained about Black Dossier. Immortal vampire-hunter Mina Murray and her young-again partner Allan Quartermain work with notorious sneak thief Anthony Raffles and Virginia Woolf’s transgendered bad-ass Orlando to bust up an occult ring that has ties to Bertolt Brecht’s Mac The Knife and Pirate Jenny. Aside from the recurring motif of Brechtian balladry, Moore doesn’t play around much with structure or style in 1910. He re-introduces his characters and quickly puts them in action, in a story packed with non-transgressive sex and violence. 1910 is a slick, enjoyable read, though it’s a little slim in story and meaning for a prestige-format 80-pager. Then again, this is only the first third of the triptych. Knowing Moore, Century is bound to get a lot freakier before it’s done… B
 
It’s inevitable that a comics author as successful as Grant Morrison would develop his own legion of Haterade-fueled detractors, and it seems like there have been more and more of them since the conclusion of Final Crisis. Goodness knows what they’re going to make of Seaguy: Slaves Of Mickey Eye (Vertigo), the long-awaited sequel to/continuation of his uncompleted masterpiece from 2004. For those who don’t feel particularly indulgent toward Morrison’s postmodernist tendencies, Seaguy should come with a huge warning label—this is Morrison gone completely off the reservation and attempting to single-handedly rewrite the rules of comic-book narrative. For those who think that’s when Morrison is at his best, Slaves Of Mickey Eye is like manna from heaven. The original four-issue run of Seaguy was something like a superhero Finnegans Wake, a simultaneous celebration of and funeral for the medium written in a symbolic language so dense and full of hidden meaning that it’s almost incomprehensible. Starting with the first issue, Slaves Of Mickey Eye promises to be Morrison’s Ulysses, with a powerfully emotional heart driving its unstoppably experimental structure. Artist Cameron Stewart has only gotten better since the first series, and his mixture of clean lines and rough edges perfectly suits the blend of forceful character drama and unsettling, surreally violent symbolism in issue #1—which ends with one of the best cliffhangers in ages. This is the first must-own comic of the year… A
 
How does a 30-year-old variety show starring puppets translate into comic-book form? Exceedingly well, actually. Written and drawn by Roger Langridge (Fred The Clown), The Muppet Show Comic Book (Boom Studios) stays true to the format and feel of Jim Henson’s classic characters, alternating sketch interludes with a backstage story, and jokes with heartfelt emotion. Seemingly designed to entertain kids and nostalgic adults in equal measure, without condescending to either audience, the first issue finds Kermit dealing with a bout of melancholia while, as usual, his show threatens to fall apart around him. The art is lovely, the jokes are sharp, and if not for the absence of a Vincent Price guest spot, it could pass for an episode of the show. (Apart from the small matter of being printed on paper, of course.) The Muppets have struggled to find a suitable outlet for years now, but Langridge has given them a fine comics home… A-
 
It’s pretty hard to know what to make of The Greatest American Hero (Arcana/Catastrophic) as a comic in 2009, especially since so far (two issues into a three-issue miniseries), it’s just presenting a more expansive version of the original story from the 1981 TV show about a teacher who winds up in charge of an alien super-suit with an AWOL instruction manual. Writer and original Greatest American Hero star William Katt also founded the indie comics company Catastrophic and writes its other title, Sparks, so presumably he’s serious about expanding his line as well as reliving past popularity, but the Greatest American Hero comic is pretty flat visually, with simple art, rigid-faced characters, and dull coloring. The writing is kinda fun, though, with a distinct but not excessive emphasis on character quirk and personality. The whole thing reads a little like a fanfic project, but it could certainly be in worse hands, and the lack of attempts to update the series into something bloody and modern is refreshing. So far, nothing in particular about the comic rises above the level of a 1981 tie-in comic, but hardcore fans of the old series might want to tune in en masse in order to give Catastrophic the excuse it needs for more original stories… C
 
The Wolverine-apalooza continues as the première date of the Hugh Jackman movie approaches, and one of the odder things to crop up is Wolverine: Prodigal Son Vol. 1 (Del Ray), a manga reboot of the Wolverine story that finds him as a wide-eyed, sullen teen undergoing martial-arts training under a sensei who wants him to control his emotions as well as he controls his (so far still adamantium-free) claws. Both Antony Johnston’s story and Wilson Tortosa’s art are dense yet pretty standard—the black-and-white art is dynamic and skillful, but heavy on texture and swooping movement lines that obscure the actual action, while the story is a so-so concoction in which Logan fights prejudice, his temper, his own lazy willingness to rely on his healing factor to get him through fights, and a not-very-interesting old rival who resented his success at school. The book seems to be aimed at young teens, and its exceedingly broad story-strokes don’t have much to offer older readers, regardless of whether they’re Wolverine fans or newbies… C
 
The RAW-derived “Toon Books” series has already begun to achieve its primary goals for editorial director Françoise Mouly and adviser Art Spiegelman, by infiltrating children’s-book catalogs and libraries with colorful tomes that look like storybooks and read like comics. The latest Toon Books, Harry Bliss’ Luke On The Loose and Geoffrey Hayes’ Benny And Penny In “The Big No-No!” demonstrate the series’ limitations and virtues. Luke On The Loose is a beautifully drawn vignette about a little boy chasing pigeons across New York, but it’s essentially one big action scene with no story to speak of, and though kids will likely enjoy it as far as it goes, it isn’t the kind of book likely to foster a long-term love of reading comics. By contrast, Benny And Penny is a worthy follow-up to Hayes’ previous Toon Book starring the two impish mice; it tells a full story about making new friends. As a veteran children’s-book author and illustrator, Hayes knows how to engage the younger crowd with a mix of silliness and seriousness, and he’s translated that skill-set expertly to comics… Luke: C+; Benny And Penny: B+
 
Regular readers of Mome, Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, and similar lit-comics anthologies will likely be familiar with most of the material in Gabrielle Bell’s new hardbound collection Cecil And Jordan In New York Stories (D&Q), but seeing 150 pages’ worth of Bell’s work in one well-designed package makes an impressive case for her as one of this generation’s premier cartoonists. Adopting a range of narrative and drafting approaches to stories about artsy young urbanites, Bell gives her characters’ romantic, aesthetic, and ethical concerns exactly the right weight. Their preoccupations are important, but Bell remains slightly detached from them, not wanting to imply that these are the most important issues in the world today. Mainly she renders moments of wonder, despair, and minor triumph with remarkable exactitude and welcome concision. She’s one of a wave of comics artists who are working such wonders with the short-story form that they’re threatening to kill the graphic novel in its cradle… A-
 
Barry Allen, the alter ego of the 1950s revival of The Flash, has been dead in comics for 23 years now. In the meantime, protégés and progeny have taken up the Flash mantle. Even the aged Golden Age Flash came out of retirement, making the whole Flash family one of the most tangled pieces of continuity in the DC Universe. Allen’s return in the miniseries The Flash: Rebirth (DC) would threaten to tangle it even more if the task of writing the return hadn’t fallen to Geoff Johns, who enjoyed a long, well-liked run on the title, and who has become DC’s go-to writer for making sense of its convolutions. The first issue gets off to a promising (though exposition-heavy) start. Johns and artist Ethan Van Sciver—who previously teamed up to resurrect Hal Jordan in Green Lantern: Rebirth—weave an intriguing story about a new threat between page after page of characters explaining who they are and what they represent. It’s a wonder they can run, carrying the weight of so much backstory. Fortunately, Johns handles this material better than anyone, and he even makes a case for Allen’s return as a good thing. Nostalgia makes it easy to forget that he was usually a pretty dull character, but for the moment, he seems to be in pretty good hands… B
 
Never a household name in the U.S., Italian writer Tiziano Sclavi made his Dylan Dog into a European comics institution, headlining a title since 1986. A “nightmare investigator,” Dylan lives in London and looks into unusual cases involving zombies, invisible men, and other supernatural fixtures. He also rarely has money, plays the clarinet to help himself concentrate, and relies on the aid of a wisecracking assistant named Felix. (In Europe, he’s called “Groucho.” In the U.S., his mustache has been shorn, but otherwise, he still looks and acts like Groucho Marx.) Dark Horse has reprinted several Dylan Dog adventures over the years, and has now collected seven of them in the hefty book The Dylan Dog Case Files. Sclavi writes violent, unusual, highly compelling stories that start on familiar turf, then take strange byways on their way toward unfamiliar destinations. Remarkably, Sclavi even manages to smuggle in some heartbreaking moments amid the beheadings and wisecracks. It’s a one-of-a-kind series, maybe in part because no one else would dare such a strange combination… A-
 
For a while now, Marvel has been attempting a revival/homage/rip-off of the venerable Classics Illustrated comic-book adaptations of canonical works of literature. The “Marvel Illustrated” line has met with varying degrees of success, and while they deserve props for reaching out to nontraditional comics audiences—viz., girls—with their latest miniseries, it utterly lacks in execution what it has in good intentions. Pride And Prejudice (Marvel) makes the same predictable mistake that a lot of adaptations of classic novels make: author Nancy Butler seems to think that the attractive thing about the original Jane Austen book was the plot instead of the witty, elegant prose in which it’s told. So we get lots of rapid-fire plot points, heavy on the romance, which makes the whole thing read like an especially tweeny Cliffs Notes, with virtually none of the clever dialogue or arch tone. And while the cover has a cute teen-mag conceit and some lovely art by Sonny Liew, the interior art is by Hugo Petrus, who makes everything and everyone look fussy, busy, and gangly. Butler, who’s a novelist herself, doesn’t seem all that familiar or comfortable with the comics format, and the result is some messy pacing that doesn’t do the story any good. It’s a praiseworthy effort, but it really doesn’t succeed… C-
 
The Marvel Noir line has proven an unexpected hit for the company. Sticking classic superheroes in out-of-continuity miniseries saturated with the lowlife atmosphere and doomstruck moral shadings of 1940s noir novels and films was a bizarre idea, but somehow it struck just the right chord with fans, who ate up Spider-Man Noir and X-Men Noir. Now comes Daredevil Noir (Marvel), and whether or not it proves as popular as its predecessors, it’s definitely the best-executed so far. Science-fiction novelist and occasional comics dabbler Alexander Irvine occasionally lets the story veer into cliché, but overall, he knows his stuff, and the narrative—set in the Prohibition era, where violent vigilante Daredevil faces down crime boss The Kingpin and a newcomer seeking to usurp his criminal empire—is set up skillfully and soaked in mood. Credit the latter to the art of Tomm Coker. Coker’s art has improved substantially in the years he’s been in the business, and his sideline as a filmmaker shows up well here; the panels are set up like film stills, and his newly realistic style and excellent pacing keep the whole book moving along like a tight gangster flick… B+
 
Bad news for those who bought the Perry Bible Fellowship collection The Trial Of Colonel Sweeto And Other Stories last year; all the same content, plus recent new strips and more rejected old strips, has just come out in a bigger, brighter, nicer package. On the bright side, those who didn’t buy Colonel Sweeto now have an even shinier way to get into Nicholas Gurewitch’s amazingly creepy, clever, hilariously weird comic strips. The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack (Dark Horse) also features a lengthy, worthwhile interview with Gurewitch by Wondermark author (and past Onion comics contributor) David Malki. It’s more of a handsome shelf book than the smaller kiddie-picture-book-style Sweeto, too. Still, the strips are the real meat of the package, and they remain as fantastically twisted as ever… A
 
In the near future, nudity has become passé. In order to compete, exotic performers have had to evolve from T&A to showing off their insides. One of the main characters of 100% (Vertigo), Paul Pope’s newly reprinted futurist foray into integrity and romance, runs a strip club where the dancers strap on equipment that allows hungry onlookers to get a glimpse of all their internal juices and squishy bits. Like most of the science-fiction elements of the miniseries collected in this new hardcover, the dancing is more side detail than plot, same as the floating police cars and the virtual-reality bars. The main stories are familiar: Young man meets free spirit, falls in love; artist is asked to compromise in order to bring his work to the world; estranged married couple deals with old wounds. The characters are stock and their arcs predictable, but Pope’s dialogue is heartfelt, and his art is energetic and forceful enough to make the old tales seem new. 100% spends a little too much time on its least-interesting subplot, a reiteration of the old “manic pixie girls are free to fly” blues, but even that one has enough touches to make feel not entirely stale. And really, the moral here is the same all around: The more things change… B+

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