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April 9, 2010

Bob Fingerman’s Fantagraphics series Minimum Wage always felt semi-autobiographical—due, no doubt, to the fact that the title’s everyman protagonist was named Rob, not to mention all the intimate, home-hitting details of Rob’s relationship with his wife, Sylvia. Years later, Fingerman has revisited his unique, unflinching, true-life tale. Only this time, the backdrop is Armageddon. In his new graphic novel From The Ashes (IDW)—subtitled A Speculative Memoir—Fingerman casts himself and his wife Michele as survivors of the apocalypse. Rather than getting all grim and weepy, the couple discovers both the terrors and the joys—many of them gloatingly misanthropic—of seeing most of modern civilization vanish. But the book isn’t entirely a send-up of the genre; as warm as he is warped, Fingerman navigates this brave new world of mutants, breeding camps, bigotry, and TV-pundit dictators with a nimble step that balances dark absurdism with a large, open heart. Throughout the book, Fingerman the cartoonist is in top form, refracting much of the freewheeling sensibility he absorbed from his mentor, Harvey Kurtzman, although Kurtzman’s EC/Mad cohort Jack Davis is just as evident in Fingerman’s sketchy kineticism. As a blitz of astringent satire, an unabashed love letter to his wife, and a love-hate manifesto aimed at the whole human race, From The Ashes is a gem; as an addition to the often-staid canon of post-apocalyptic pop culture, it’s a revelation… A

“Makes Kick-Ass look like s#!t,” trumpets the cover of the first issue of Nemesis (Icon), Mark Millar’s new marketing-campaign-camouflaged-as-comic-book. Why Millar feels the need to bag on one of his other creations—especially one whose film adaptation is about to open nationwide—remains unclear. It’s also inaccurate: In truth, Nemesis doesn’t even make shit look like shit. Millar’s terroristic, cop-slaughtering Nemesis is the very embodiment of overkill, only in this case, Millar has clearly forgotten that there’s a fine art to nihilism, blunt and ugly though it may be. By the time Nemesis, a straw madman minus any trace of complexity or charisma, crashes Air Force One and assassinates the U.S. president just to get to a DC police chief he wants to off, it’s obvious the whole story has taken a similar, terminal nosedive. To add insult to injury, Millar includes a grossly self-congratulatory afterword, a page of delirious hype that literally takes twice as long to read as the comic that preceded it. With the clunky, brutally stupid, and shockingly unshocking Nemesis, Millar takes yet another giant leap toward becoming a self-parody of a self-parody… D-

The first couple pages of The Guild #1 (Dark Horse) are none too promising; artist Jim Rugg doesn’t do the greatest job of bringing Felicia Day’s face into his simple-lined comics world, and Day’s script has her starting out talking directly into a web-cam. In both cases, it seems like the creators are trying to imitate Day’s popular web nerd-comedy series The Guild too closely, and showing their limitations in the process. But the comic—the first in a three-issue miniseries, though Day is considering more—quickly expands into settings and situations outside the capacities of the webisodes, and in the process it opens up the life of Day’s Guild character  in touching ways. This prequel reveals how Cyd got involved in “The Game” and met her “guildies,” and what her life was like beforehand, as a classical violinist with a selfish rock-musician boyfriend, a judgmental therapist, and not much of a life. As with the web-series, the characters are comedically exaggerated, borderline-pathetic types, but the situation is less funny and more awkward/embarrassing, as Cyd lets her boyfriend walk all over her, but finds a better world online. Rugg (who illustrated Minx’s Plain Janes and Janes In Love) still seems like he’s straining to make comic-Day look like real-Day, but his cartoonier other characters fit the story perfectly, and his soft, pastel rendering of Cyd’s game-world is appealing, yet slyly idealized. The story, meanwhile, might not work as well without the knowledge of Day’s vulnerable yet chipper affect hanging over the character, but it seamlessly integrates with the web series’ mixture of discomfort humor and deep understanding of—and wry sympathy for—gaming nerddom. Newcomers should start with the webisodes, not here, but existing Guild fans will likely be happy with the deeper story and larger world… B

It’s hard not to hate Rafael Grampá. It seems the young Brazilian cartoonist created his solo comics debut, the silly yet stunning Mesmo Delivery (Dark Horse), more as a lark than anything else. But when the book was released in a limited edition by AdHouse in 2008, it was clear Grampá—who’d previously shared an Eisner for his work on the anthology 5—already had the hand, eye, and soul of a master. The graphic novel isn’t perfect; reissued by Dark Horse in a less-expensive edition appended with sketches and superfluous pinup art from the likes of Mike Allred and Craig Thompson, Mesmo Delivery is short on story and long on Grampá’s sumptuous, steroidal, Geof Darrow-esque art. A hyper-violent vignette about a hard-punching, milk-drinking trucker who has to pummel his way (naturally) out of a bad deal, the book is all swagger, splatter, and flash. But on those terms, it delivers brilliantly—even as it promises far greater things from Grampá in the future… B+

When Kevin Smith finally gave up on bringing the venerable radio and TV hero The Green Hornet to the big screen a few years back, it only made sense that he’d wind up recycling some of that script in comic-book form. The debut issue of Smith’s Green Hornet (Dynamite) feels appropriately rehashed; while there’s nothing glaringly terrible about the issue, Smith’s exposition-stuffed dialogue and threadbare tale of a playboy vigilante trying to juggle love and crime-fighting are as flatly serviceable as Jonathan Lau’s workmanlike art. In comparison, the first issue of Matt Wagner’s Green Hornet: Year One is as deep and complex as Dostoevsky. That said, it’s far from spectacular; although Wagner’s story, set in 1920s Chicago, has more subtlety and scope than Smith’s, it’s Aaron Campbell’s muted, washed-out art that really sets the stage. If this is any indication of the future look for Dynamite’s new line of Green Hornet titles—including a Kato solo book and a Dark Knight-esque extrapolation of a near-future GH titled The Green Hornet Strikes—it might be best to save your money for the upcoming Michel Gondry film… Green Hornet, C-; Green Hornet: Year One, B-

Another licensed adaptation is Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time (Dynamite), a retelling of the first novel of the late author’s interminable fantasy series. The adaptation is a daunting task, but in the first issue, writer Chuck Dixon keeps things basic, as a simple village boy named Rand al’Thor begins to feel the faint first stirrings of a fate that will upend his life (and his universe). Although Dixon makes some odd narrative choices—for instance, cramming the novel’s prologue into the middle of the main story—artist Chase Conley smoothes everything out with a lush, vivid painting style that’s wide-eyed and inviting, but never cartoony. For some, this adaptation may even be more palatable than Jordan’s convoluted, labored original… B

Ever come across a comic that you desperately want to like, but just can’t bring yourself to enjoy? Fans of Brit-pop and indie-dance music might get a similar feeling when readingPhonogram: The Singles Club (Image). The second volume of Kieron Gillen’s and Jamie McKelvie’s ongoing series, the trade paperback continues the club-centric, bed-hopping, occasionally supernatural adventures of a pack of young, perfect-looking hipsters on the prowl for, well, nothing much. Weighed down by ridiculous dialogue (“What is that?” “Sounds like The Gossip.” “I love The Gossip! We must dance.”) as stiff and plastic as the artwork, the book is saved only by the sheer, eye-popping rigor of McKelvie’s formidable draftsmanship. That is, unless gratuitous, tacked-on, yet obsessively repetitive references to flashes-in-the-pan like The Pipettes are your thing. Of course, if you aren’t a fan of these particular micro-genres and subcultures, the book’s cutesy glossary—which will certainly be more confusing to the layperson than no glossary at all—isn’t going to make Phonogram more comprehensible or enjoyable… C

The first issue of Peter Parker (Marvel) doesn’t have any major reasons for existing in a paper format. It was originally published in digital form, but Marvel is bringing the Bob Gale-penned, Patrick Olliffe-drawn story to comic stores instead of computer screens, and the result is a pleasant outing that takes place a few months before the current run of Amazing Spider-Man. Everyone’s favorite web-slinger is struggling with all the usual concerns: a new supervillain who controls light, the machinations of Mayor J. Jonah Jameson, and a roommate who turns decoration into warfare. There’s also a trio of high-school girls who may be causing Peter problems down the road, but for right now, it’s all setup with no real delivery. Nothing here is urgent enough to grab, and Gale’s usual straightforward, kid-friendly approach isn’t exactly spellbinding. But Spidey fans who missed out on the web version should enjoy it. As an extra bonus, there’s a Fred Hembeck comic in the back about Peter’s pre-radioactive days. It’s corny, silly, and charmingly slight—and it gets the job done in eight pages… B+

Soon after leaving Marvel in 1967 under still-murky circumstances, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko got on board with the Distinguished Competition and introduced The Creeper. The character, who appeared in Showcase and World’s Finest as well as his own title, lived up to his name: The maniacal, cackling alter ego of TV talking head Jack Ryder fought criminals and supervillains more on the strength of his unhinged attitude and his colorful, fright-wig-inspired appearance than any unique origin or superpowers. The Creeper soon became a cult favorite, and while other artists and writers brought him back over the years, no one has managed to match those original Ditko stories. As The Creeper (DC) makes clear, Ditko took on the character after he’d all but perfected the breathtaking style he began to hone with Spider-Man: kinetic, intensely physical, and highly dynamic. Bound in a handsome, slick hardcover edition, this complete collection of Ditko’s Creeper stories shows a visual storyteller at the peak of his powers. It isn’t just for collectors—this omnibus is for anyone who wants to be reminded why Ditko is numbered among the greats… A

One of the longest-running examples of a creator-owned character, Joe Kubert’s Tor isn’t the hero he’s best known for, but since 1953, the stoic prehistoric warrior has been Kubert’s most personal. That is, of course, when Tor was appearing at all; a handful of publishers, Marvel and DC included, have published the sporadic exploits of the Conan-like hero over the past six decades. Tor’s most recent appearance is Tor: A Prehistoric Odyssey (DC), a trade paperback that collects the six-issue miniseries from 2008. Venturing further into the supernatural than any Tor before it, Odyssey introduces the noble savage to a society of mutant outcasts whose existence hints at some cosmic hiccup in history as we know it. Accordingly, the story dips into existential reverie and even psychotropic terror, an indicator that the compassionate, meditative Tor isn’t just a man without a tribe, but a man out of time. Kubert’s gritty linework has eroded over the years into something as craggy and jagged as Tor himself. And while a good portion of the narrative feels stilted and ultimately unresolved, the book’s grim yet effortless mastery shines through… B+

Part biography, part critical analysis, and part coffee-table book, Todd Hignite’s The Art Of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets Of Life And Death (Abrams ComicArts) is frustrating at times for its betwixt-and-between approach to an alt-comics legend. But Hignite structures the book well, shifting between chapters on Hernandez’s life and chapters on the recurring themes of female empowerment and cultural identity in his work. Jordan Crane designed The Secrets Of Life And Death superbly, giving enlarged panels from Hernandez’s comics plenty of space to be seen and admired without cluttering up the page with distractions. The book’s real value is in the way Hignite breaks down Hernandez’s rapid metamorphosis from a being fanzine artist with a love of Jack Kirby monster comics and Archie-style romantic comedy to being a top-tier writer and artist with insights into character and class worthy of Henry James. Through interviews and art samples, Hignite shows how Hernandez’s compulsion to compete with his initially more ambitious and accomplished brother Gilbert—coupled with an anything-goes attitude fostered by the California punk scene—led to Love & Rockets, a comic that emerged almost fully-formed in 1981 with a confidence and casual sophistication well beyond what anyone else was doing at the time. The Secrets Of Life And Death documents how an entire medium can be transformed when artists who aren’t finding what they’re looking for go out and create it themselves… A-

Among other jobs, author Christos N. Gage has written scripts for popular television mystery shows like Law And Order: SVU, and judging by the structure of his new graphic novel, Area 10 (Vertigo Crime), he’s comfortable with the procedural format. Area 10 appears edgier than it ultimately is: NYPD Detective Adam Kamen is hunting for Henry The Eighth, a serial killer who lops off his victims’ heads. Kamen is volatile, with a mess of a personal life, and getting a screwdriver stuck in his forehead doesn’t much help. The story delves into trepanning, expanded consciousness, and time shifts, but it winds up being slightly less than the sum of its parts. After a promising opening, Kamen’s attempts to adjust to his newfound mental abilities give the book an exciting instability, as the detective’s past and strange visions make him an unsteady, potentially violent protagonist. Once the mystical elements are stripped away, though, this is a standard murder mystery. It’s pretty good for what it is—and Chris Samnee’s art is appropriately fevered—but it all ties together too conveniently. It’s the sort of story that might have benefited from a different kind of perspective… B

In 1956, long before he became a manga legend, Yoshihiro Tatsumi was a struggling 21-year-old artist who pumped out graphic novels for Japan’s book-rental market. Too young and hungry to afford a studio full of assistants like the big boys, he single-handedly wrote and drew the 127-page Black Blizzard (Drawn And Quarterly) in a 20-day fever of creativity. That haste is partly what makes the book such a swift, propulsive read: The story of a hardened card shark and a pianist charged with murder but freed by the crash of a prisoner-transport train, Blizzard is a head-spinning blur of hardboiled suspense. The climactic scene—in which the two fugitives, handcuffed together and caught in a tightening dragnet, must play a game of chance to see who will saw the other’s hand off—is as nervy and taut as Mickey Spillane, even though Tatsumi’s art, still in its formative stage, feels necessarily loose and frantic… B

There’s a sense of foreboding in James Sturm’s new graphic novel Market Day (Drawn And Quarterly) that borders on the overwhelming, but Sturm is such a gifted artist and storyteller that the book never becomes an outright wallow. Set in an unnamed European community in the early 20th century, Market Day follows a young rug-maker named Mendleman as he carts his wares to town, leaving his pregnant wife behind. Sturm conveys Mendelman’s thoughts in first-person, real-time monologue, and even when Mendelman lies to himself about his prospects, Sturm allows his hero’s posture and the darkening skies above him to reveal what’s really going on. Market Day is a meditation on the commercial concerns of artists, and how the industrial revolution made some craftsmen obsolete too soon, robbing them of their dignity. But it’s also about the joys and pains of creation itself, and how that sometimes trumps the need to make money. The book ends in an ambiguous place, but not an entirely hopeless one. Artists and art-lovers alike will rally around any glimmer… A-

Starving humans haunting a blasted wasteland of ruins and death, hunted by an endless stream of killer robots: This should be exciting. But the past few years haven’t been kind to the Terminator franchise, and the series’ main touchstones have lost much of their power. The film Terminator: Salvation offered to finally deliver on the long-promised war between man and machine, but the results failed to leave much of an impression. The debut issue of The Terminator 2029 (Dark Horse Comics) doesn’t exactly correct this. Andy MacDonald’s art is fine on the close-ups, but fails to give a sense of grandeur or menace when it’s really needed. Thankfully, Zack Whedon’s script succeeds in creating actual likeable characters, which goes a long way toward making up for the lack of original threat. The comic does repeat the mistake of sticking with a familiar face; having Kyle Reese as a hero makes it hard to get too worried what will happen next. Still, Kyle is personable enough, and his supporting cast shows promise. Only time will tell whether 2029 stays with the past or finds a new way of telling stories about the future… B-

The first collected volume of the Mark Waid-penned series Irredeemable introduced hero-turned-villain The Plutonian, a Superman-like “ultimate boy scout” who flips and begins destroying everyone and everything in his path, cruelly and capriciously. Irredeemable Vol. 2 (Boom!) starts the shift from devastation to explanation, as Tony’s former colleagues investigate the extraordinary pressures and errors in judgment that turned their friend into an enemy. Like Waid’s superb life-of-a-tyrant miniseries Empire, Irredeemable has a lot of fun with subverting superhero clichés by observing them from another angle, and by showing how an upper-echelon hero could use his insider knowledge against his former mates. As the story arc moves toward some kind of resolution, Waid relies more on conventional genre plotting, but Irredeemable remains one of the most inventive, absorbing new superhero stories of recent years… B+

Ho Che Anderson’s graphic novel Sand & Fury: A Scream Queen Adventure (Fantagraphics) is a surreal horror-noir exercise with a muddled plot mitigated—meagerly—by some legitimately disturbing imagery. Relocating the banshee myth to the dusty Southwest, Anderson tells a story replete with graphic rapes and murders and people losing their souls, but his inky, abstracted drawing style makes it difficult to distinguish all the characters, turning Sand & Fury into a relentlessly bleak, violent mess. Granted, that’s probably what Anderson is shooting for, but the result is too ugly to admire. C-