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April 30, 2009

 

Like a lot of long-running series that have blended episodic storytelling with a larger mythology, 100 Bullets has evolved over the past 10 years into something very different than how it started. In writer Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s original concept, a mysterious stranger handed wronged people an untraceable gun and 100 bullets, along with a name of the person they needed to shoot to exact vengeance. The premise was pulpy and flexible, allowing Azzarello and Risso to explore different characters in different communities, and to keep returning to juicy moral dilemmas. Would we kill someone we hate, if we could get away with it? And would it make our lives better? Then as 100 Bullets moved from arc to arc, a master-plot developed around the gun-supplier Agent Graves, and his shady past with the secret criminal organization that pulls all the strings of power in the world. 100 Bullets #100 (Vertigo) wraps up that master-plot with a lot of shoot-outs and posturing, and on its own merits, it’s not one of the series’ best issues. But it does successfully conclude an arc that suits a comic that’s been so consistent over the past decade. The final scene asks the same question 100 Bullets has asked since 1999: What does it cost us when we pursue a mission—however principled—with fanatical, blindered devotion?... #100: B; The series: A-)

Like Jeffrey Brown’s previous “memoir in slices” Little Things, his Funny Misshapen Body (Touchstone) assembles loosely related vignettes from his own life, with no clear structure or conclusion. Having dissected his earliest romantic relationships in books like Clumsy and Unlikely, and his daily routine in Little Things, Brown now devotes Funny Misshapen Body to documenting his early interest in art and comics, and how the latter inclination ultimately overtook the former. Detours into Brown’s boyhood struggle with Crohn’s disease and his college-era forays into binge drinking and pot-smoking don’t really fit into Brown’s examination of his own artistic development, but they’re useful as pieces in the big puzzle of Brown’s own life—a puzzle he seems determined to spend the bulk of his cartooning career trying to solve. Those averse to self-indulgent navel-gazing should leave this one on the shelf, but Funny Misshapen Body ought to appeal to fans of Harvey Pekar, Joe Matt and other comics creators who’ve turned the minutiae of their own lives into a kind of accidental art. Like his predecessors, Brown has developed a knack for cutting to the quick with his own personal narrative, and extracting the moments that are funny, poignant and painful… B+

Team-ups are fun for a lot of reasons, but the big one is getting to see various super-heroes who might never otherwise hang out spending time together. Which is why it's so crucial that the writer behind the team-up understands that the ways characters bounce off each other is at least as important as how they bounce off the bad guys. A new hardcover collection, The Brave And The Bold: Demons And Dragons (DC), closes out comic vet Mark Waid’s run on the current Brave And The Bold series, along with a few extra issues from earlier volumes; the result is a hugely entertaining example of the kind of clever, engaging storytelling that one rarely associates with professional sourpusses like Batman these days. The Dark Knight himself teams up with the Jay Garrick Flash to take on some Samurai robots, and in the one story in the book not written by Waid, he also helps the brother duo of Hawk And Dove resolve some issues. There’s also some Deadman action, when the past-his-expiration-date acrobat works with Green Arrow, Nightwing, and Hawkman to bring down a nasty looking demon. Nothing in the collection has a huge amount of depth, but it’s satisfying, funny when it’s supposed to be, and the characters themselves all ring true. Having it in hardcover is maybe a bit much, but this a fine way to spend an hour or two… A-

Jason M. Burns’ Curse Of The Were-Woman (Devil’s Due) is an odd duck: It’s a movie-ready, high-concept story of revenge and moral lessons that’s guaranteed to put off a goodly percentage of its potential audience, simply by being fully committed to its values. The short graphic novel follows a gleeful womanizer who seems to actively enjoy smooth-talking women into bed, then sneering in their faces shortly after orgasm, as he reveals his lies and his contempt. He’s so cartoonishly, exaggeratedly smug and nasty—sort of a Patrick Bateman whose weapon of choice is the cock rather than the chainsaw—that it’s pretty hard to care about his redemption, as entertainingly unlikely as it is: He beds and blows off a vengeful Wiccan who magics him into a “were-woman” who swaps genders by night. Naturally, he’s as crudely self-centered about this as about anything else—apart from mourning his penis, he’s initially depressed mostly because he makes for a pretty hot chick, yet he can’t nail himself. The other characters are equally broadly drawn, and so is his salvation—the story is movie-ready in that sense, too, in that it’s a bunch of wacky hijinks with a none-too-believable bit of uplift at the end. It’s far too gleeful about all the details of his happy fratboy hedonism—and far too shallow and unnuanced about the women whose humanity it’s supposedly championing—to fully appeal to the people who’d presumably want such a revenger’s tragedy. And the groin-centered cads who supposedly need the story’s message aren’t likely to embrace a book where a dude loses his nads and learns to love the ladies for (mostly) spiritual rather than carnal reasons. Still, the premise is fun, and as rough as the humor is, it at least doesn’t pull punches. Christopher Provencher’s bold, simple cartoony art and Nick Deschenes’ sharp colors add a four-color, “don’t take this too seriously” vibe that softens some of the flinchier moments…  C+

Similarly bold and bright, but a bit more fun: the collected trade of The Helm (Dark Horse), Jim Hardison’s short series about a pudgy, geeky Comic Book Guy-type who happens to get his hands on a talking magical helm whose wearer is supposed to become a legendary hero. Two problems: It hates him and considers him unworthy of it, and it can’t bond with someone else while he lives. So it verbally abuses him and even tries to get him killed, while he, like any good dork, thoroughly embraces the idea of living out a heroic fantasy, except where it gets in the way of his existing habits. Conflicts ensue. Fans of Adam Warren’s Empowered will find some familiar chords here—the angry helm talks much like the caged demonlord in Warren’s series, and some of the self-aware humor is similar—but this is more a play on fantasy epics than on superhero comics, and the art is colorful, accomplished, and much less impressionistic than in Empowered. (It also has far fewer mostly naked girls, admittedly.) Nonetheless, for anyone with a less-than-heroic physique who’s dreamed of being a hero anyway, this is a simultaneous long, hard look in the mirror and a playful bit of wish-fulfillment… B

Joe Kelly sometimes seems on the verge of being the next Robert Kirkman, for the sheer number of quality titles he’s involved with (Four Eyes, Bang Tango, the about-to-be-collected I Kill Giants). But Kirkman is quicker on the draw these days, while it can be a slog waiting for the next issue of a Kelly series to come out. One of his latest, Bad Dog (Image), is finally about to hit issue #3, which is a relief because the first two installments were terrific. If there’s an overarching plot, it’s only been hinted at in the title character’s obsession with the missing kids on milk cartons, but mostly so far, it’s just the low-key, endearingly goofy, yet pointedly angsty story of a couple of bounty hunters, one a foul-mouthed, silly-haired, fun-loving rebel, and the other a werewolf. Specifically, a huge furry beast who looks rather like a muscular bear, and who refuses to resume human form on general principle. The first two issues concentrate on character development, scene-setting, and hilarious abuse of white supremacists, which artist Diego Greco brings to life with lovely detail and muted but nuanced color. Here’s to more, no matter what the wait… B+

The 19th volume of Dark Horse’s Little Lulu collection is the first to be printed in color, but the upgrade isn’t necessarily an improvement. The comics in Little Lulu: The Alamo And Other Stories are superb as always, with cartoonists John Stanley and Irving Tripp chronicling the symbiotic society of children in ways that are at once iconic and sophisticated. Little Lulu takes place in that same bland American suburb that so much light entertainment from the ’30 through the ‘60s seemed to take place, complete with clubouses and laundry hung out to dry and drugstores stocked with candy and soda. But like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, the Little Lulu kids show a level of self-awareness—and dry wit—that renders their adventures timeless. Or at least that was the case in the earlier books; the color reproduction in volume 19 has a dismaying distancing effect. The effort to retain a newsprint-like look—complete with Ben-day dots—makes these comics look more dated than usual. The stories are still entertaining, but the feel less fresh… B+

In 1966, 13-year-old fanboy Jim Shooter submitted a sample script to DC editor Mort Weisinger, and almost immediately found himself writing the saga of The Legion Of Super-Heroes in Adventure Comics. The latest hardbound “DC Comics Classics Library” volume The Legion Of Super-Heroes: The Life And Death Of Ferro Lad collects several of Shooter’s early stories, beloved by long-time Legion devotees for their honest effort to expand the super-team’s mythology, and to introduce the notion that crime-fighting has lasting consequences. Read today, Shooter’s early work is charming and clumsy in equal measure. It’s exciting to have someone who cares so much about these characters arrive with new ideas, adding heroes and villains with the kind of awesome powers only a kid could dream up: a cloud that eats suns, a boy with super-karate skills, a rogue with a touch that destroys planets, and so on. But Shooter’s writing often sounds pretty juvenile, marred by deathless dialogue like, “The Zadronians did not realize that the linkage of half a human brain and half a robot brain gave Tharok a mentality beyond measure and increased his lust for evil!” Thank goodness Shooter had the art of Curt Swan and George Klein to prop him up. The veteran penciler and inker hit on just the right visual style for the Legion, mixing childlike simplicity with cosmic wonder. It’s hard to argue that The Life And Death Of Ferro Lad is any kind of classic, but it has historical value, and thanks to Swan and Klein it’s pretty fun to boot… B

It sounds like a no-brainer, concept-wise; take the best soldiers from wars from across time and drop them all on an island populated by dinosaurs. Give them access to munitions, a blanket ability to speak English, and let the games begin! It’s every five year-old boy’s dream, and on a basic level, The War That Time Forgot, Volume One (DC) delivers on that dream. Reprinting the first six issues of a twelve issue miniseries, War revisits a world created back in the sixties, with Bruce Jones on writing duties and Jimmy Palmiotti and Al Barrionuevo on art. The result moves at a brisk clip, with plenty of machine gun on terrible lizard action, but it suffers from muddy and often disappointingly sloppy illustrations that fail to truly capture the awesomeness of a Vietnam Vet taking down a triceratops. The characters are a mishmash of stereotypes; apart from a monomaniacal colonel and a robot GI Joe from the future, no one really stands out. There’s a lot of in-fighting and power-plays, especially in regards to a woman who may be connected to whoever’s running the game, but with no heroes to root for, everything blurs together after a while. Like Jose Philip Farmer’s Riverworld series on a budget, future installments promise revelations about the men behind the jungle curtain; that’s almost enough to make volume two worth reading… C+

Part of the appeal of the original Hellboy stories was how Mike Mignola created a world for his main character to inhabit that had a mythology that was supposed to be dizzingly complex. In the initial tales of Big Red and the Bureau Of Paranormal Research And Defense there were references to a shared past had yet to be told; it gave readers the impression that they were jumping into a rich and ongoing story that they weren’t actually obligated to know anything about. It’s been a few years since the B.P.R.D. first arrived on the scene, and in that time, it’s managed to establish a concrete back-story as involved as the pretend one. In B.P.R.D.: The Warning (Dark Horse) that back-story threatens to boil and bubble outward in all sorts of catastrophically awful ways. While investigating Liz Sherman’s bad dreams, fishman Abe Sapien, the ectoplasmic Johann Kraus, and the surprisingly normal Kate Corrigan, discover that something bad is going to happen; something involving frog men, giant robots, and a mysterious man with a Fu Manchu moustache. The story is supposedly prelude to even worse things down the road, and while Mignola’s writing starts a little cold, the apocalyptic developments are very cool stuff, and Guy Davis’s art more than delivers. Without Hellboy around, the series lacks a certain sense of humor, but it’s still got end-of-the-world action in spades… B+

Batman has always had one of the best rogue’s galleries in comics; his strongest opponents have a distinctive style and temperament that sets them apart, especially when they come into direct conflict with the Caped Crusader. The hard part is in creating new villains with the same iconic potential as the Joker or Catwoman. With Hush, Jeph Loeb made a good start: Thomas Elliot, a dark mirror version of Bruce Wayne obsessed with getting revenge on Wayne for offenses real and imagined. Hush had a lot of potential, including a distinctive, pseudo-Invisible Man style get-up, but in Paul Dini’s Batman: Heart Of Hush (DC) that potential gets buried in a lot of shallow psychology and tedious narration. Elliot has decided it’s time take revenge on his old friend, and to do so, he’s going to follow the advice of ancient philosopher’s and target Batman’s inner circle. That’s dangerous news from a guy who knows who Bruce Wayne really is. Dustin Nguyen’s art has a gothic flair, but Dini’s script is clunky and disappointing. Only a mid-story twist gives this one the momentum it needs; Hush become a somebody eventually, but right now, he’s just another mopey bastard in a comic world all too full of them… B- 

The Tick, Ben Edlund’s hulking, florid superhero parody character, became such a cult success as a result of an animated series and a short-lived live-action TV show based on his adventures that fans could be forgiven for not knowing he started out in a comic book. After all, it was published by tiny New England Comics, basically a vanity press set up by the comics shop of the same name, and ran only 12 issues in the late 1980s; it was a great time for comics, and The Tick largely got lost in the shuffle. Various reprint editions have come and gone, but it’s been a decade since old fans and new could get hold of a solid anthology. The Tick: The Complete Edlund (New England Comics) is as definitive as it’s ever going to get: It collects all 12 original Tick comics, as well as one-offs, guest shots, and other appearances, and a wealth of new and semi-new background material, all supervised by Edlund and crammed into a massive 400-page volume. Those who remember the comic fondly but have lost track of their copies can finally get hold of them again, and fans who only know the Tick’s video incarnations will be surprised and delighted at how its comic sensibilities and distinctive style were right there from the start… A-

Created in 1958 for the little-known American Comics Group and continuing sporadically until 1967, Herbie the Fat Fury was one of the most bizarre emanations from the weird world of superhero comics. Created by Richard Hughes and drawn in an almost hypnotically static style by Ogden Whitney, the strip featured the adventures of a morbidly obese and seemingly autistic kid named Herbie Popnecker, described by his father as a “fat little nothing”, but secretly one of the most powerful heroes on Earth. Herbie, in his Fat Fury persona, could melt people alive just by staring at them, beat ferocious mythological creatures to death with a lollipop, and intimidate Satan himself. He spoke in a terse, affectless way and was irresistible to everyone, but didn’t seem to care much about his heroic adventures.  Herbie the Fat Fury, Vol. 3 (Dark Horse) is the last volume of a fine hardcover collection of the adventures of young master Popnecker, and for those willing to pony up the cash, these are stories that simply have to be seen to be believed. Intended as a superhero parody, Herbie the Fat Fury goes way beyond that into something surreal and strange, incredibly repetitive but compellingly readable and increasingly odd with every issue. It reads like a ‘luuded-up collaboration between David Lynch and Pee-wee Herman…  B

Someday, every single thing Jack Kirby ever drew will be collected somewhere or other. The King of Comics has been more productive since his death than 2Pac, and while keeping up with the lifetime of work created by one of the industry’s biggest workaholics is a full-time occupation, plenty of people are up for the task. Long before he ever ran into Stan Lee, Kirby’s most frequent collaborator was the legendary Joe Simon, with whom he dabbled in every comics genre imaginable (this was before Kirby’s success at Marvel helped insure that superhero books were the only comics genre imaginable). The Best Of Simon And Kirby (Titan) is the first volume of a proposed series showcasing the early work of these two brilliant and restless men, overseen by Simon himself, still remarkably active at 95 years old. Their work over the years ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous—at the beginning of their time together, they created Captain America, and towards the end, they created his exact opposite, Fighting American—but the work gathered here is pretty uniformly strong and should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about one of the most famous teams in the history of the medium… B+