Comics of Note: March 2007

Comics of Note: March 2007

Buffy's back! Well, kind of. Buffy The Vampire Slayer-creator Joss Whedon just launched a new Buffy comic series at Dark Horse that picks up where the series left off. It's a virtual eighth season, beginning with an arc written by Whedon himself to be carried on by ace writer Brian K. Vaughan. The first issue's familiar enough to make fans miss the series but compelling enough on its own terms to fill the void… A-

Those who aren't familiar with the high formalism and quaint patois of Stephen King's seven-novel Dark Tower series may be thrown by the stiffly artificial language in Peter David's partial adaptation; The Gunslinger (Marvel) runs awfully heavy on the "thankee sai"s and "do ya kennit"s, not to mention the storyteller-style commands aimed directly through the fourth wall at the reader. But Jae Lee and Richard Isanove's art is marvelous. Issue #1 starts with The Gunslinger, the first in King's seven-book series; issue #2 segues neatly into the extended flashback of book four, Wizard And Glass, as young gunslinger Roland Deschain passes his manhood trial and heads east for a fateful meeting with a girl named Susan Delgado. By necessity, with only seven issues planned, it's a relatively shallow take on a deep series, but it's an evocative one… A-

Virtually any criticism that could be made about the newly collected eight-issue series The World Below (Dark Horse) is covered in the introduction, where writer-artist Paul Chadwick fully owns up to its failings: The dialogue in the opening issues is almost comically terse, the stories are bumpy, the end is deeply depressing. But by getting those admissions out of the way up front, Chadwick frees readers to enjoy all the plusses of his psychedelic science-fiction stories, in which six privately funded explorers seek exploitable resources in a secret underground world. Heavily inspired by classic comics in the Weird Science mold, Chadwick brings the densely detailed, impeccably clean art and boundless imagination of his signature series Concrete to stories about titanic monsters, mutant societies, and living machines… B+

Following up on 2004's excellent Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print, editor David Wallis assembles editorial cartoons that didn't make their respective publication's cut in Killed Cartoons: Casualties From The War On Free Expression (Norton). Coming in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy, the time is right for a book like this, weighing the danger that lines on paper hold to the powers that be; and Wallis even gives space to cartoonists and editors who believe there should be limits on what makes it onto an editorial page. Killed Cartoons' organization is a little off, with the mini-essays about each cartoon inexplicably placed before the cartoon in question, effectively draining the immediate impact. But those essays, collective, make for a sobering portrait of how the threshold of editorial tolerance keeps moving back and forth. Example: In 1980, Mel Odom had a relatively innocuous drawing of Ronald Reagan rejected. The reason? "Not paternal enough"… B+

Captain Marvel is one of those superheroes that modern comics writers often don't know how to handle, since his original incarnation—written by Bill Parker and drawn by C.C. Beck—was much lighter and sillier than anything on the racks today. When DC Comics revived the character in the early '70s, the creative team (including Beck) held to the original idea, telling way-out stories about the unlikely collaboration between boy newsman Billy Batson and the super-powered mystical spirit who takes over for him when trouble calls. The delightfully qurky adventures in Showcase Presents: Shazam! (DC) were throwbacks even when they were first published, more suited to Little Lulu than a standard-issue muscle-bound galoot. Outside of maybe the silver-age Superman, what hero could maintain his dignity while eating mounds of runaway Jell-O, as Captain Marvel does in "The World's Mightiest Dessert?" Silly, yes. But fun… B+

In figuring out how to update Captain Marvel without losing his retro charm, no one has an edge on Jeff Smith, whose miniseries Shazam!: The Monster Society Of Evil (DC) features all the talking alligators and put-upon wizards that made the original Captain Marvel stories such a kick, while still reading like something produced in 2007. Bringing the same thick lines and animated expression that he brought to his own Bone series, Smith recasts the Captain Marvel origin story in a kid-friendly sci-fi/fantasy vein, making boy hero Billy Batson into an urchin on the verge of becoming another Harry Potter. Slick, bright, emotional and witty, The Monster Society Of Evil is everything superhero comics should be… A

When the headlines blared "Captain America Killed" you could almost hear a nation of longtime comics readers chortling. It won't last, of course. But even though it's obviously a gimmick, it's a pretty good example of how Marvel's kept its universe lively after the anti-climactic end of its Civil War miniseries. Brian Michael Bendis, for instance, debuted The Mighty Avengers, a new series drawn by Frank Cho. Comprised of a team with the war's government-sanctioned winners with the intriguing suggestion that team leader Tony Stark might not have been such a government stooge all along. Elsewhere, writer Dwayne McDuffie, late of the Justice League Unlimited animated series, shakes up The Fantastic Four by changing the team line-up and Reed Richards own reasons for siding with stark in the war…  Both: B+

Noir-addled cartoonist Richard Sala is so prolific that it's easy to take him for granted, but like Norwegian genius Jason, Sala's slim graphic novels are never less than entertaining, and frequently rich. The Grave Robber's Daughter (Fantagraphics) brings back Sala's foul-mouthed teen detective Judy Drood, and traps her in a nightmarish circus town where the creepy goings-on work as metaphor for growing up and generations in transition. The story's a little one-note, but at 90 pages, it doesn't have room to get tiresome, and Sala's distinctively gothic style is still a pleasure to scan… B+

Fantagraphics has repackaged Los Bros. Hernandez's classic Love And Rockets comics about a dozen different ways, including the massive hardcover collections Palomar and Maggie & Hopey. The latest softcover anthologies, Heartbreak Soup and Maggie The Mechanic, may be the most user-friendly, bringing a plethora of the series' earliest stories to new readers in low-priced, easy-to-read packages. Of the two, Gilbert Hernandez's Heartbreak Soup is best-served, since the stories collected here are self-contained, poignant gems—some of the best work the medium has ever produced. Jaime Hernandez's lovely but weird Maggie The Mechanic comes from the days when L&R still had a sci-fi component, and it might've been better to have ended this particular volume a little earlier, before the more naturalistic "Hoppers 13" stories that occupy the last 40 pages or so. Still, if Fantagraphics continues in this format, then the next Jaime book should be a killer… A, A-

Superhero artist and freelance illustrator Stuart Immonen maintains a website, www.immonen.ca, through which he sells some of his more experimental efforts, as well as fun little mini-comics like the cult favorite 50 Reasons To Stop Sketching At Conventions. Currently, in a limited edition of 100, Immonen is offering Criminal Insects, a cute-and-tiny box set of three mini-comics—"Robber Bees," "Moonshine Beetles" and "Safecracking Snails"—that are more like adorable objets d'art than fully realized stories. They're fun to leave lying around the house, to delight and baffle visitors… B

Speaking of comics-as-art, esoteric publisher Buenaventura Press has reprinted British cartoonist Tom Gauld's deadpan, funny Hunter & Painter, a charmingly slight slip of a story about the caveman hierarchy, and how the designated cave-painter solicits ideas for his latest opus. In vogue? "Some kind of epic, with blood and spears." Less popular? "Mushroom pickers." Beneath Gauld's simple joke, there's a sly observation about art and history, and how one influences our understanding of the other… A-

Apparently, cartoonist Charles Burns' predilection for juxtaposing the mundane and the bizarre extends to his photography. In One Eye (Drawn & Quarterly/Petits Livres), the Black Hole graphic novelist combines separate images into single pictures, sometimes accentuating the beauty of a nature scene, and sometimes making industrial landscapes, motel rooms and found objects look extra creepy. Aside from a one-paragraph intro at the start of the book, none of the disjointed visions herein are given any context. But then how much context does a shot of a pound cake fused to a shot of ground meat need? It's almost more disturbing without explanation… B+

The Marguerite Abouet-written, Clément Oubrerie-drawn Aya (Drawn & Quarterly) is the latest example of the burgeoning "growing up in exotic lands" genre, though Abouet lightly fictionalizes her girlhood on the Ivory Coast, working it into a multi-character, episodic story about teenagers in trouble during the waning days of an African nation's boom years. Abouet has lived in France since she was 12, and seems to have internalized the French method of comics storytelling, which emphasizes vivid moments over narrative payoff. Still, those moments are frequently poignant and—as drawn by Oubrerie—filled with the atmosphere of a hot, dusty country flush with excess cash… B

In between pioneering a jazzier, non-Disney animation style at UA and bringing that same sensibility to the foundering Terrytoons, Gene Deitch tried his hand at the daily cartooning grind with Terr'ble Thompson: Hero Of History (Fantagraphics), a kids-adventure strip about a time-traveling whelp. Loose in style, and graced with a puckish sensibility that was rarely gag-oriented, Terr'ble Thompson was too wild to survive, even in the era of Pogo and Li'l Abner. But the collected edition, while rarely rib-tickling, shows an animation and cartooning industry in flux, open to new ideas that would flower more fully later on… B

In the first trade collection of Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink, writer John Kovalic (Dork Tower) and artists Christopher Jones and Melissa Kaercher credit Bob Newhart and Kurt Busiek as their "founders." Given the book's playful humor and its particular brand of superhero parody, it's easy to see why. Id. Ego. SUPEREGO! (Dork Storm) packs in the gags and geeky in-jokes at a dizzying rate, as an Everyman psychiatrist tackles the obvious neuroses of some suspiciously familiar superheroes. Jones' art sticks close to Bruce Timm's iconic art style from such shows as Batman: The Animated Series, which just throws another referential layer on an already-rich torte… B

Like so many of Joann Sfar's projects, The Professor's Daughter (First Second) is suffused with its own weird, heady brand of logic, and its story moves forward at such a breakneck pace that there's no room to question that logic. When a sheltered girl takes up with the Egyptian mummy Imhotep in Victorian England, death, calamity, and chaos result, but only in a mannered, humorous, almost dreamlike style reminiscent of Little Nemo In Wonderland—especially when an irascible Queen Victoria herself enters the picture. Sfar's frequent collaborator Emmanuel Guibert (Sardine In Outer Space) illustrates this brief book with six washed-out panels per page, giving it a simple but rarefied and beautiful look that lends gravity to its silly tone… B

Doug TenNapel's early black-and-white series Gear (Image) led directly to his Cartoon Network series Catscratch, though the two don't have much in common, apart from some simply stylized cats named after real-life ones. The collected edition of Gear, now in brilliant, crayony color, tells the story of nations of cats, dogs, and insect warriors, all of which command giant robots called "guardians" to defend their borders; when alliances form and the nations go to war, the most innocent and comic characters naturally suffer. This isn't as accomplished and slick as TenNapel books like Earthboy Jacobus and Creature Tech, but it's heady, randomly comedic stuff nonetheless… B-

The hefty first volume of Keiko Takemiya's Japanese import To The Terra (Vertical) begins to collect a venerable manga series first serialized in Japan in the late '70s through early '80s, and to fans of the era's science fiction, it's probably a godsend. But for modern readers, it's likely to seem clunky and cluttered, and the story is irritatingly hard to follow until more than a hundred pages in. Takemiya's story about a persecuted telepathic offshoot of humanity was heavily inspired by A.E. Van Vogt's 1940 novel Slan, and her black-and-white art follows in the footsteps of Osamu Tezuka, but while it's an acknowledged manga classic, it's harder to get into than its inspirations… C

Fables remains one of the best ongoing series out there, and to some degree, its spin-off series Jack Of Fables is basking in its reflected glory. But as the first plot arc, newly collected as Jack Of Fables: The (Nearly) Great Escape (Vertigo) shows, Bill Willingham's Fables universe is expansive and colorful enough to support a lot more stories than one series could possibly hold. Jack's series isn't as diverse and deep as its parent series, but as an unpredictable romp, it's a lot of fun… B

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