August 13, 2010

Peter Milligan has delivered some fine superhero-comics writing, but his new The Rage Of Thor (Marvel) one-shot suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Following his Trial Of Thor story, Milligan has a resentful, almost petulant god of thunder going to live among mortals and abandoning Asgard, which he feels has shown him only betrayal and ingratitude. Complications, both predictable and unexpected, ensue, and he learns there’s a reason he needs Asgard as much as it needs him. Though the Norse gods (as opposed to the Greco-Romans) work better in comics as majestic, larger-than-life characters than flawed, petty superhumans, there’s nothing wrong with darkening the tone a bit, but Milligan doesn’t seem sure where he wants to go here, and he throws in some fairly arbitrary supervillain conflict instead of sticking to the psychological storytelling. And while there’s nothing really wrong with Mico Suayan’s art, it, too, seems muddy and dark when it should be intense and bright. Milligan shows good instincts here, but questionable execution… C

For those curious about Marvel’s history with Thor, but unsure where to start, there’s Marvel Masterworks: Mighty Thor, Volume 1 (Marvel). Marvel has been releasing Thor books in the hardcover Masterworks format, characterized by slick paper and painstaking recolor jobs, for a few years now, but this is the first to be released in an affordable softcover edition. Few people outside of purists will miss anything from the cover change other than the expense, and this is an excellent release otherwise. Collecting the first 17 issues of Thor’s introductory stint in Journey Into Mystery from 1963 and ’64, it has some of Stan Lee’s most grandiose, enjoyably over-the-top writing; the choice to have Norse gods speak like Shakespeare characters may have made no sense at the time, but it’s instantly memorable. Jack Kirby’s art is also some of his best stuff for Marvel, allowing him to indulge his love of overblown action, high energy, and epic-scale storytelling. The restoration does wonders for his work. Finally, the book also includes the popular “Tales Of Asgard” backup stories, making this one of Marvel’s most essential old-school collections… A-

The eight-issue miniseries The Marvels Project charged the Captain America team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting with creating a cohesive past for the publisher’s golden-age characters. They delivered. Collected, with a slew of variant covers, as the hardcover The Marvels Project: Birth Of The Super Heroes (Marvel), the series ropes heroes both well-known (Captain America, Namor) and obscure (John Steele, The Angel) into a series of connected tales leading up to America’s entry into World War II. It’s episodic by design, and the narration sometimes makes it seem like an elaborate sourcebook. But Brubaker has a feel for the characters and an ingenious knack for weaving disparate (and kind of silly) origin stories into one coherent narrative. Epting responds with art that’s simultaneously fantastic and grounded in a plausible reality of its fedora-and-dark-sedan world. It’s a fine read that begs writers to return to the era… B+

Of the current generation of up-and-coming artists working in alternative comics, Jillian Tamaki is by far one of the most talented. But the sinewy-yet-fragile, fine-lined style that graced her 2006 collection Gilded Lilies and her Ignatz-winning 2008 graphic novel Skim isn’t put to its best use in Indoor Voice (Drawn & Quarterly). Like Gilded Lilies in miniature, Indoor Voice assembles some of Tamaki’s quick strips and sketches in a tiny, gorgeous, alternately silly and surreal package. It’s an odd irony, though, that her sketches here often feel more polished than her strips, most of them of the “profound, unresolved mini-epiphany” variety. But while Indoor Voices feels more like finger-food than a fork-and-knife meal, even Tamaki’s loosest artwork is absorbing and evocative… B

While Indoor Voice comes across as a little skimpy, another Drawn & Quarterly mini-paperback, Eden, is deeply nourishing. The debut collection of comic strips originally self-published online by Argentinean cartoonist Pablo “Kioskerman” Holmberg, Eden packs more beauty and wonder per square inch than ought to be possible. Within Holmberg’s strict, four-panel grids, the young artist uses nature, fantasy, anthropomorphism, and hushed emotional microcosms to illuminate aching, joyous truths—or simply ask the right questions. Influenced, at least from a distance, by John Porcellino’s Zen-like vignettes and James Kochalka’s huge-hearted cartooning, Holmberg packs each strip with a stunning payoff in the last panel—although those punchlines come as either weird twists of magic-logic or bursts of kid-like whimsy-wisdom. Not all the strips hit their target, but of the vast majority that do, some are melancholy, others are philosophical, and a few are laugh-out-loud hilarious. The best are all three at once… A-

Cartoonist Rand Holmes was a fixture in underground comics anthologies in the ’70s and ’80s, where the sexually explicit, drug-laced adventures of Holmes’ hapless hippie hero Harold Hedd rivaled Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics for narrative density and taboo-busting. Holmes’ stories though, while still essentially comedic, were harder-edged than Shelton’s, taking their cues from Holmes’ EC-influenced art style—which may be why Holmes isn’t as well-known or well-anthologized. The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective (Fantagraphics) aims to change that by combining a lengthy biography of Holmes with copious samples of his work, ranging from one-pagers in the underground newspapers of western Canada to sprawling tales that graced the likes of Slow Death Funnies and Dope Comix. Frankly, Holmes’ early work was often crass and exploitative, and lacked the wit and bite of contemporaries like Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, and R. Crumb. But the man could tell a story, and he hit his stride with lengthy action-comedy epics like “Wings Over Tijuana” and “Hitler’s Cocaine,” which explored the shadier sides of drug culture in a style that veered from the shockingly real to the morbidly slapstick. Imagine a Jack Davis MAD magazine piece with heavier overtones; that was Holmes at his best, and that best is well-represented in The Artist HimselfB+ 

Drew Weing’s breezy, lyrical graphic novel Set To Sea (Fantagraphics) opens with a full-page panel of an enormous sleeping man, then pulls back on the next page to reveal that he’s asleep in a pub. When the bartender demands that he wake up and pay his bill, the man answers that he’s a poet, and will need a line of credit. Soon he’s kicked out into the street, where he’s promptly kidnapped and pressed into service on a clipper ship. And so Set To Sea continues, one full-panel page at a time for 140 pages, as Weing tells a simple story about art and experience, delivered in one-step-follows-another fashion. Weing’s cartoony figures and detailed backgrounds—rendered with precise cross-hatching—suit his one-picture-per-page format well, making Set To Sea look like an animated film slowed down to a slideshow. And while the book’s “you gotta live to write” message is fairly pat, Weing’s beautiful art and masterful pacing are so pleasurable that Set To Sea stands up to multiple reads. It’s a catchy little tune that sounds better with each spin… A- 

Much like the first collection of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ Vertigo series The Unwritten, The Unwritten Vol. 2: Inside Man (Vertigo) offers a mix of multi-issue stories and one-offs set in a universe where the troubled son of a famous author has discovered that he may actually be his dad’s most celebrated fictional character, a Harry Potter-like boy wizard. The book’s back half isn’t as strong as its front; the two-part “Jüd Suss,” about the transformative power of Nazi propaganda, comes off as a little heavy-handed and esoteric, while the one-shot “Eliza Mae Hertford’s Willowbank Tales,” about the rebellion of a foul-mouthed bunny, is nowhere near as beguiling or profound as volume one’s “How The Whale Became.” But the four-parter that gives volume two its title is a potent explication of The Unwritten’s main themes, contrasting Tom Taylor’s stint in prison with the adventures of two kids who are huge fans of his fictional counterpart, Tommy Taylor. Carey explores how hero worship can turn ugly when a celebrity’s in trouble, but he also digs a little deeper, considering why readers care so much about made-up characters. Then he tests our own connection with The Unwritten’s characters by putting them through the kind of life-and-death trials that make readers angry with writers. It’s a deft piece of work, exciting both on a visceral and intellectual level… B+

The latest in an ongoing mania for reviving underused Silver Age characters, Doctor Solar, Man Of The Atom #1 (Dark Horse) is a good example of why the treatment only works with the right writer. Jim Shooter can still deliver entertaining comics, but as a holdover from the Silver Age himself, he doesn’t entirely grasp the revivalist mentality. His new interpretation of the classic Gold Key atomic superman gets rolling after a while, but that while is filled with way too much expository dialogue and would-be clever attempts at getting meta. Shooter is no Grant Morrison, and watching him pretend to be, via a bewildering altered origin that winks clumsily at its comic-book origins, is almost painful. The art by Dennis Calero is respectable and really illuminates the best bits of the writing, but it’s a good effort on behalf of a losing cause. The second half of the book is a reprint of the first Doctor Solar book from 1962, and its inclusion just makes the new material look bad by comparison; the old stuff moves at a much more lively pace, and Bob Fujitani’s spy-story-influenced art is fantastic… C

A slight improvement is Magnus, Robot Fighter #1 (Dark Horse), another classic Gold Key reboot by Shooter. It’s burdened with the same over-expository, caption-heavy storytelling as Doctor Solar, but it doesn’t screw around too much with the character’s origins (you can’t get too clever with an iron-fisted future stud punching robots in the face), and it’s much more action-heavy, and thus rushes along at a more enjoyable pace. Bill Reinhold’s art isn’t as accomplished as Calero’s work on Doctor Solar, but it’s better suited to the material, and it never falls flat, which is more than can be said for the story. Once again, the original 1963 Magnus story (by the great Russ Manning) is included as back matter, and once again, it just serves to show how much better it is than the reboot. Shooter is plenty familiar with these characters, having overseen their 1990s revival for his own Valiant Comics line, but these books never take off; whether Shooter is just bored or simply isn’t up to telling these stories, the result is a pair of new takes that feel old and tired… C+

Matt Murdock’s supercharged sensitivities don’t end with smell, sound, and touch. He’s a paragon of selflessness too, and that’s generally kept writers from depicting him pining over his lost sight, as he does in the first of three stories featured in Daredevil: Black & White (Marvel). There are exceptions, of course. In #223, he regained it for a day as a retainer from the Beyonder, and in #9, he traveled to Lichtenbad in search of a cure. In Black & White, Peter Milligan tweaks DD’s rationale for staying sightless, but pulls it off in the cheapest, hoariest manner possible, while Jason Latour justifies the black-and-white treatment with kinetic Zip-A-Tone-aided panels that convey every thwap and shunk of Bullseye’s projectiles. The second story is all stark black-and-white courtesy of Mick Bertilorenzi—perfect for illustrating the Kingpin’s eerie sangfroid as he unspools the many puppet-strings he uses to manipulate his subjects, all for a henchman’s benefit. The third piece sees Ann Nocenti reprising the politically tinged, weighty tone of her controversial Daredevil run in a short story supplemented by David Aja’s spot illustrations. They’re a good team, having worked together on the excellent “3 Jacks” from Daredevil #500, but Aja is woefully underused here, even though he provided the punchy cover. The story—which lifts myriad details from the death of actress Adrienne Shelly—plays out via bursts of acute sensory input that lead DD to the killer and a satisfying conclusion, without any of the overly mannered dialogue Nocenti is sometimes accused of. Altogether, it’s a bit of out-of-continuity experimentation that hits more often than it misses, though the second story is practically Daredevil-free, and more Aja would certainly have been welcome… B- 

For a middling videogame mostly remembered for (allegedly) getting a Gamespot reviewer axed, Kane & Lynch is a surprisingly hot property these days: There’s a sequel in the works, a movie in pre-production, and now Kane & Lynch #1, the start of a six-issue miniseries for Wildstorm, can be tossed into that slightly off-smelling stew. Wildstorm at least has experience with these things, having churned out adaptations of God Of War and Resident Evil, but it’s a thankless job making this pair of psychotic hired guns relatable. Writer Ian Edington serves up a few chunks of exposition about Kane’s history with mercenary group The 7, and establishes that he’s still trying to win back his estranged daughter, but it’s really just the preamble to Christopher Mitten’s gut-shot thugs, pill-popping assassins, and airborne teeth, which are all rendered with the same raw lines and set against the same almost abstract backgrounds he employed on Wasteland. All in all, this is a fairly forgettable first issue, and the converted don’t have long to wait until Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days drops, anyway… D+

Lafayette Hollins comes from a long line of Charm City arabbers, but Bubs from The Wire, he isn’t. The first issue of Stephen Scott’s messy Murderland (Image)—as in Baltimore, Murderland—sees him working as a human shield for his shape-shifting femme-fatale girlfriend Method, who grows lethal, bony appendages just as easily as she grows a new head of hair or changes the color of her skin. David Hahn’s art is as crisp and candy-coated as it was in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, which makes panels where rival assassin Le Precurseur gets his head stomped into the ground feel a bit discordant—but it isn’t as if the rest of the comic is particularly harmonious. The story is all over the place, and the issue’s opening acting metaphor undergoes the kind of torture that Method probably wouldn’t lose any sleep over. Characters demonstrate unexplained powers and pursue arcane ends while television clips compete for page space, and only Scott knows if there are answers around the corner, or just more quippy bloodshed… C

DC recently handed J. Michael Straczynski the keys to Superman and Wonder Woman and permission to take them down some uncharted paths. The first issues of the Straczynski eras of each title have offered intriguing results, though not instantly winning ones. While Superman grumpily walks across America, Wonder Woman has been reinvented as an urban ass-kicker with a new origin with Wonder Woman #601 (DC). Her history, however, seems not to have been so much erased as supplanted, and for now, Straczynski has her trying to uncover what happened to her own past. That seems a little counterproductive so far: If you’re going to start over, start over. But the issue is entertaining, and elevated by Don Kramer’s dynamic art. It should be interesting to see where this goes… B

Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s “Beasts Of Burden” comics feature talking dogs and cats musing over their humans and sniffing each others’ butts, but while Thompson’s art is adorable, these aren’t particularly cute comics. The plot arcs have these animals dealing with regular supernatural incursions, from zombies to ghosts to demons, and the fights tend to get bloody and intense without ever leaving a convincingly concrete animal realm: In one story, the spirits of tortured and murdered animals possess several dogs in order to slaughter the kid who killed them, and the same spirit of human callousness and animal sacrifice stretches throughout the collected hardcover Beasts Of Burden: Animal Rites (Dark Horse), which collects the four-issue miniseries and various one-shots from collections like The Dark Horse Book Of Hauntings and The Dark Horse Book Of The Dead. The series never escapes a certain picture-book childishness, even when it gets gritty and ghastly, but its horror stories are at times authentically creepy, given that they’re grounded in vivid real-world details, both in the writing and in the art… B+

Reviewers on Amazon seem unusually pissed off about Troublemaker (Dark Horse), a graphic novel that brings popular crime writer Janet Evanovich to comics, but apparently isn’t meaty enough for her fans, especially those who didn’t realize from the ordering page that it was—gag!—a comic. Comics fans probably won’t be thrilled either; this first hardcover book in a series is short, slick, and fluffy, with Evanovich’s crime-solving characters Alex Barnaby (a perky blonde NASCAR mechanic) and Sam Hooker (a smirking blond NASCAR driver) flirting and running around Miami trying to rescue a seemingly kidnapped friend. Evanovich’s two novels with these characters were popular, but the graphic novel, co-written by Janet’s daughter Alex, and illustrated in bright, simple, cartoony style by Joëlle Jones (Spell Checkers, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her), is trying harder to be kicky and fun than immersive or interesting. The whole thing feels like a bantery car chase wedded with a standard-issue will-they-or-won’t they romance, the characters are shallow types who might as well be Barbie and Ken, and the mystery doesn’t follow particularly logically from one scene to the next. When even the die-hard fans don’t like it, the neophytes coming in via a new medium should probably steer clear too. C- 

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