Comics of Note: November 30, 2007

Comics of Note: November 30, 2007

Alan Moore claims that The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (America's Best) is intended as a "sourcebook," meant to reveal the origins and history of the literary superteam he and artist Kevin O'Neill introduced in a pair of knockout miniseries at the turn of the millennium. As a sourcebook, Black Dossier is stunning in its detail, covering alternate versions of the LXG—featuring characters like Gulliver and Virginia Woolf's Orlando—in a range of styles both high and low. But somewhere in the course of his career, Moore began to confuse "serious" with "unreadable," and while it's impressive to see him replicate Shakespearean drama or Kerouac-style "automatic writing" or the raunchy tone of Tijuana bibles, the results are often more confounding than entertaining. Far better is Black Dossier's framing story, set in a post-1984 UK, where a young James Bond and a ruthless Harry Lime operate in the shadows. But then the book ends with one of Moore's typically bizarre phantasmagorical reveries, which doesn't exactly put a thrilling capper on the at-times-impossible material that preceded it. Nevertheless, with Black Dossier out of Moore's system, the future looks bright for the next LXG miniseries, which reportedly spans centuries and brings the team into the present. Whatever Moore lacks in accessibility, he usually makes up in ambition and imagination… B-

The story of one ugly bruiser and the zombie hordes that plague a town seemingly assembled from the details of a Tom Waits song, Eric Powell's ongoing series The Goon offers a deft blend of low humor and unexpected pathos. Recent issues have been hitting the humor a little harder than usual, leading some readers to wonder where the pathos went. It's right here, folks, in the standalone graphic novel The Goon: Chinatown And The Mystery Of Mr. Wicker (Dark Horse). The story sheds some light on our hero's past in a sad flashback that echoes a mystery of his present. It's Powell at his best, all slimy tentacles and tough-guy tears… A-

The hardback collection of the Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born (Marvel) is still a little too heavy on King's slangy, stilted, silly high-fantasy language, but man oh man, is it ever pretty. Peter David's script melds together bits of the first of King's seven Dark Tower novels, The Gunslinger, with the fourth, Wizard And Glass; together, those two books comprise most of the series' delving into the backstory of the novels' protagonist, Roland Deschain. The story has Roland discovering his mother's adulterous affair, his subsequent rushed coming-of-age rites of passage, and his first job as a man, leaving his home to help uncover the plans of a would-be despot, and discovering a haunted love in the process. David's script is faithful and King's story is powerful, but the most striking part of the package is the incredibly vivid, starkly detailed but gorgeously colored art by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove. A bonus section in the back of the hardback collection shows how it's done, layer by beautiful, complicated layer… A

For earlier Peter David work, Marvel fans can look back to the late '80s and '90s, when he enjoyed a lengthy run writing The Incredible Hulk, taking the apparently limited characters in a number of unexpected directions. The ongoing Hulk Visionaries: Peter David (Marvel) series is compiling the run. Its current, fourth volume finds Hulk gray and living well as a mob enforcer in Las Vegas, a stint doomed to fail thanks to the character's emotional baggage and connection to the superhero world. Jeff Purves' art hasn't aged all that well, and some of David's ideas work better in theory than on the page, but it remains a fun, ambitious read, with future volumes promising even more ambition… B

David has stayed extremely active over the years, and he's currently penning the adventures of Hulk's cousin She-Hulk (Marvel). Taking over for Dan Slott, who enjoyed an inventive, character redefining run, David has a tough act to follow, and his first issue finds him still in the too-soon-to-tell phase. But one development, not to be spoiled here, suggests he'll be up to his old rule-bending… B-

Gail Simone, on the other hand, has a much easier act to follow in taking over Wonder Woman (DC) with issue #14. She's coming in after a spirited but perpetually late run from Allan Heinberg, and a disastrous arc by vacationing novelist Jodi Picoult. (Now available in the hardcover Love And Murder, but honestly, don't bother.) But she has her own worries—the fact that Wonder Woman remains an ill-defined character even after decades of comics appearances and the best attempts of many writers. But working with artists Terry and Rachel Dodson, she's off to a pretty memorable start. Without throwing out past continuity, Simone seems determined to start a run that will explore where Wonder Woman comes from and what she's supposed to do. Also: She now shares her place with super-intelligent gorillas, which improves just about any story… B+

Journalist G. Willow Wilson makes her graphic-novel-writing debut with Cairo (Vertigo), which starts out as a gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines tale about contemporary life in the Middle East, complete with terrorist cels and covert freedom fighters. But the book quickly takes a far more fanciful turn, following a group of characters—Muslim, Jew, and Christian—embroiled in a plot involving a drug kingpin and the powerful genie he's trying to enslave. M.K. Perker's art is a little too conventionally Vertigo-ish—all cluttered frames and busy lines—but Wilson's firsthand knowledge of Egypt informs the characters and setting, making Cairo an offbeat adventure story with a distinctive point of view… B

It's hard to evaluate the 34 super-short TV-tie-in stories in Heroes: Volume One (DC) on their own terms, because they don't link up to create their own narrative, and anyone who picks this book up without having watched every episode of the NBC series will be pretty much at sea. That said, the artwork in these four-to-six-page pieces (which previously appeared as bonus webcomics on the Heroes website) is uniformly dynamic and colorful, and the writing is fairly snappy, bringing insights to the Heroes universe that creator Tim Kring himself would do well to study. For fans of the show, this volume is a lot of fun, and is arguably essential. For the average comics fan? Well, again, Heroes: Volume One contains work by some of the best superhero artists in the business—including the show's official painter, Tim Sale—so even when the overarching point of these collected stories is unclear, they're individually stunning… B+

By the end of the '50s, the writing teams on Superman and Action Comics were coming up with so many wild ideas that they could scarcely give all of them their due. One of the strangest and best was the concept of Kandor: a perfectly preserved Kryptonian city that the arch-villain Brainiac shrank and stored in a bottle before Krypton exploded. Superman later rescued the bottle, and kept it in his Fortress Of Solitude, where the tiny Kandorians lived out their lives, and occasionally served as Superman-substitutes in emergencies. The trade-paperback collection Superman: The Bottle City Of Kandor (DC) brings together some of the best Kandor stories from 1958 to 1979—when Kandor was finally un-shrunk, in a story cheekily titled "Let My People Grow"—but while these comics are a delight to read, collectively, they provoke a feeling of lingering disappointment familiar to most fans of the Silver Age. These stories are so much fun, yet the people who wrote, drew, and published them were such careless stewards, letting intriguing ideas dwindle and fade rather than building them into anything sustained and powerful… B+

In May of 1958, at the age of 43, Plastic Man creator Jack Cole fulfilled a lifelong dream by launching the syndicated daily newspaper comic strip Betsy And Me. In August of '58, Cole shot himself in the head. Fantagraphics' slim collection Betsy And Me brings together Cole's full run on the strip, plus some of the installments that ran after he died, when another artist briefly took over. Nothing in Betsy And Me's writing or drawing reveals the soul of a troubled artist; if anything, the strip is practically ebullient in its depiction of a young family man, dealing with the everyday trials of work, parenthood, and moving to the suburbs. The strip's subject matter is familiar from dozens of late-'50s domestic comedies, but Cole's cockeyed optimism and exaggerated cartooning keeps the material fresh, and his relaxed storytelling indicates that he planned for Betsy And Me to run for years. Which makes reading this book both pleasurable and painful… A-

The eighth volume of the "Graphic Classics" series continues pairing alternative-comics artists with giants of world literature, in a funky updating of the Classic Comics concept. Graphic Classics: Mark Twain (Eureka) packages some Twain essays, short stories, and reportage into a generous 140 pages of eclectic, strikingly illustrated comics. But the book's main selling point is Rick Geary's expansive adaptation of "The Mysterious Stranger," which turns Twain's tale of witch-hunting and Satanic interference in the 1590s into a spare, haunting meditation on God's indifference. It's a fantastic piece of work, by one of the medium's underappreciated masters… A-

Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros compiles his own autobiographical short stories—one drawn by Bo Hampton, one by Rich Tommaso—in Yearbook Stories 1976-1978, a slim pamphlet that covers a couple of pivotal moments in Staros' teenage years. The Tommaso-drawn story, "The Worst Gig I Ever Had," is a slight-but-enjoyable rock 'n' roll anecdote, while the Hampton-drawn "The Willful Death Of A Stereotype" is a mini-epic about rigid high-school identity politics, and Staros' efforts to change his lot by running for student body president. The latter story takes some unexpected turns, and develops some real suspense—aided by Hampton's finely shaded, casually cartoony art—but it's mostly noteworthy for how Staros insists that power doesn't always have to rest in the hands of untouchable elites… B+

Tony Millionaire doesn't try anything radically new with his latest book, Sock Monkey: The "Inches" Incident (Dark Horse). He's still putting creepy-cutesy toys into action-packed romps that end in mayhem and disturbing scenes of doll-on-doll violence, and he's still drawing these stories in impeccable detail. This collected four-issue miniseries isn't as pungent or hilarious as Millionaire's Maakies strip at its best, but it's a quick read, riddled with some marvelously grotesque imagery. Anyone who sees the book's "gingerbread monkey" covered in ants will be unable to look at insects, simians, or holiday desserts in the same way ever again… B

Adam Warren's rarely clad heroine Empowered continues to get stripped, tied up, and humiliated by villains in Empowered: Vol. 2 (Dark Horse), and sometimes the stories get even more egregiously exploitative, as when she has to dress up as a sexy, mostly naked librarian to lure in a villain with very specific tastes. But the story arcs in volume 2 tend to be longer, and Warren's growing concentration on support characters and Empowered's relationships keeps making the series more resonant and sweet than fetish softcore really deserves to be. Besides, the trash-talking demon stuck in some alien bondage gear and left lying around the house is hilarious… B

Wildstorm's trade collection Ninja Scroll (which includes series issues #1-3 and #5-7) initially reunites Jubei Kibagami—hero of the 1993 hit anime film Ninja Scroll—with some old enemies from the movie, and blows through a bunch of not-really-necessary fight scenes. The second half of the book is a far more interesting conundrum involving the relationships between people and the monsters living on the mountain above their village. In true Japanese style, J. Torres' scripts don't offer easy outs, black-and-white choices, or happy endings. But the book is still a quick, light read, similar to the animation flipbooks that retell anime movies' stories by captioning a bunch of their individual cells. The best part of the book is Michael Chang Ting Yu's painterly art, which aims to be as complex and richly colored as a good anime film, and generally succeeds… C+

Doug TenNapel's Flink (Image) isn't nearly as complex and agreeably loopy as his Creature Tech or Earthboy Jacobus; it feels more like an in-between, throat-clearing kind of project, possibly because it's shorter than many of his books, possibly because the story is fairly thin. Still, he approaches it with a close-up pacing that makes his panel-to-panel transitions feel like minute-by-minute observations, whether his characters are fighting a bear or just walking through the woods. When a small plane crash-lands and leaves a boy alone in the wilderness, a grouchy Bigfoot named Flink adopts him, in spite of his tribal regulations and taboos, and his own nasty experiences with humans. Their odd, prickly, mercurial relationship certainly has the TenNapel touch, but it's a fairly down-to-earth, standard-issue story compared with his better work. His black-and-white art, however, remains stylized and angular enough to lend the story a loose, rawboned, easygoing feel, but still detailed and photographic enough to impress… B-

Picture a thoroughly bizarre amalgam of The Maltese Falcon, Titan A.E., and Heavy Metal, and you'll have something vaguely in the neighborhood of Outer Orbit (Dark Horse). The four-issue limited series follows a blue-skinned, pointy-eared, vaguely feline-faced asshole pizza boy named Quinn and his unwilling partner, a giant green chastity-belt-wearing, mother-fixated lump named Krunk, across the galaxy in search of a potentially valuable idol and an obviously valuable hypersexed idol thief. They start out telling their story to a group of poker-playing alien killers, jump around in continuity a lot, get in a lot of nonsensical side yammering, and blow up a lot of crap in the process, with a never-stops-jumping tone that evokes Tank Girl as much as any of the above references. It's busy, silly, and often ridiculously violent, and co-writer/artists Zach Howard and Sean Murphy make it pretty interesting to look at, too, but it's aimed more at 14-year-old boys with ADD than anyone else… B-

Mike Richardson's The Secret, another four-issue miniseries newly collected as a Dark Horse trade paperback, is so clearly bucking to be turned into an I Know What You Did Last Summer teen thriller that it's almost no fun; reading it is a little like reading a movie novelization. It's almost impossible to come up with a plot description that doesn't sound like a movie pitch: Essentially, a group of teenagers making prank calls and claiming "I know your secret!" to whoever answers happen to run across someone who really does have a nasty secret, and they pay an ugly price. On the other hand, it is efficiently spooky, and Jason Shawn Alexander's art is more textured, both with watercolory gloss and with vivid, messy, expressive splashes of paint, than any movie version would be. Even the lettering periodically drips with eerie menace… B-

Speaking of Tank Girl, in an introduction to his new trade paperback Tank Girl: The Gifting (IDW), co-creator Alan Martin describes her conditon circa 1995 as "tattered and whored." He isn't exaggerating. The goodwill the comics world held toward Tank Girl was all but obliterated with the release of the really, really bad 1995 film version, and even Martin's partner Jamie Hewlett seemed to distance himself from his creation as he crept into stardom as a member (and the character designer) of Gorillaz. But there's no denying the anarchic glee of those early Tank Girl strips. And although Hewlett is still sadly absent from The Gifting, his shoes have been very ably filled by Ashley Wood, whose stunningly sketchy, exquisitely produced visuals are every bit as good. More than anything else, the self-contained vignettes starring Tank Girl and her post-apocalyptic crew resemble Archie's gag-punctuated shenanigans as reinvented by sick, prurient punks—in other words, a breath of freshly fetid air… A-

Hey, it's a new Alex Robinson project that wasn't five years in the making, and won't give readers a hernia if they try to carry it around. In fact, Alex Robinson's Lower Regions (Top Shelf) fits nicely into a back pocket. It's a departure in other ways, too—Robinson is best known for his massive, talky, character-intense, thematically deep books Box Office Poison and Tricked, but here, he goes wordless and action-oriented, with a Dungeons & Dragons-esque heroine hacking a graphically bloody path through a labyrinth full of monsters, with a single, simple goal in mind. It's raw, fun, action-movie fantasy, and it breezes by at top speed, but rewards later, slower perusals, if only to catch all the expressive emotions on the monsters' faces. It'd be a shame if Robinson abandoned his observational people-oriented work to do dungeon runs full-time, but as a palate-cleansing side project, it's a barrel of guts and fun… B+

Matt Kindt's Super Spy (Top Shelf) is practically the opposite in every way. Initially, it appears to be a series of very brief, smart stories about spies at work, passing messages, taking down enemies, falling in love, gathering information, enduring equipment failure, and getting killed, among other things. But as the hefty 300-page-plus book continues to unfold, the connections between seeming unconnected characters are gradually revealed, and the whole thing becomes a single huge, rich tapestry that begs for an immediate second read. As the story becomes richer, Kindt's scratchy sepia art seems increasingly hollow and starved, but his writing makes the simplistic characters with their scratchy faces seem real… B+

Newcomers to anime who want to know what the fuss is about, but don't want to waste much time educating themselves, could do worse than to just sit down and read Gear School (Dark Horse), a pretty but fairly generic, brief little book about a flight-school cadet who flubs all her training, but still saves the day (and her best friend) when the mysterious aliens come to town. It hits all the basic mecha-series clichés except the excessive focus on the mecha, and it looks nice and goes down harmlessly, but it doesn't have much individual flavor. Younger readers will probably like it well enough… C

By contrast, the first two issues of Dark Horse's Umbrella Academy, scripted by My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way with art by Gabriel Bá, are all flavoring, but it's still hard to determine whether there's a solid meal there. In a random act of coincidence, a handful of women who weren't pregnant spontaneously give birth to babies with extraordinary powers. An alien disguised as a patrician adopts seven of them and molds them into a kiddie super-team. By the end of issue #1, they've grown up, their mentor is dead, and a new chapter is beginning. It all happens at a whirlwind pace, with lots of fairly extreme strangeness, a visual style reminiscent of Mike Mignola's, and an authorial sensibility similar to that of Alan Moore's original League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, complete with embedded olde-timey faux-encyclopedia for reference, but it may not be clear until the first six-issue limited run concludes whether all this is going somewhere as focused as a Moore book, or it's just madness for madness' sake… B

The first collection of Joss Whedon's "Season 8" Buffy series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home (Dark Horse) highlights the difference between the show on TV and the show in comic form. The snappy dialogue and hilariously Whedony language is all in place, so much so that it's easy to hear how the show's actors would have delivered each line. And yet a lot of the sparkle and snap is gone, without the actors' quirky charm and the whipcrack pacing and editing to keep things moving forward. While it's pleasant to see these characters once again being written by the creator who knows them best, and drawn by people who can distinguish between the female characters in some way other than hair color, this still kind of feels like the fourth act in a three-act play, put on by some lonely stagehands after the actors and audience have largely left the building. For every solid payoff, there's a reason or two to wish Whedon would let this one go and concentrate fully on a non-spin-off project… C+

 

Many comics creators mature and mellow as they get older, but it's good to see Evan Dorkin still pumping out the same old snotty, silly jokes. But one fact that might elude many readers—even those who follow Dorkin's sporadic comics output between bouts of TV work—is just how accomplished a cartoonist he's become since making his mark years ago with Pirate Corp$ and Milk & Cheese. His latest pamphlet, Biff Bam Pow! (Amaze Ink/Slave Labor), is another collaboration with his wife Sarah Dyer, and it's a dizzy, goofy romp through science-fiction and superhero clichés. The two main stories—the origin of a crime-busting boxer named One Punch Goldberg and an adventure involving the broke, hapless Kid Blastoff—move as briskly and effortlessly as their gags, although the middle strip, a reprint from Nickelodeon Magazine titled "Nutsy Monky," is the very definition of filler. Throughout BBP, though, Dorkin's intuitive grasp of pacing, weight, and even grace shine through, and his signature panels stuffed with clutter and anarchy are more eye-gouging than ever. The stories are slight, but any chance to check in on Dorkin's sure evolution as an artist is worth the price of admission… B

In storytelling, melancholia can become a quagmire—which Jeff Lemire might have kept a little more in mind throughout Essex Country Vol. 2: Ghost Stories (Top Shelf). The second installment of his linked-graphic-novels series begins on a hushed, shaky-lined, depressingly poetic note. And it never lets up; while the tale of Lou LeBeuf, a deaf old man suffering from Alzheimer's and alcoholism, is beautifully structured and layered, the tragedy builds into something wholly imbalanced and dour. Told through cleverly framed flashbacks, the events of Lou's life as he develops from a young hockey player to a farm-dwelling recluse are hopelessly maudlin, and the pileup of catastrophe afflicting him and his entire family doesn't leave any room for redemption—or even, at times, to breathe. Perhaps Lemire, through his memory-fogged and gorgeously sparse rendering of Lou and kin, made his characters a little too sympathetic; the universe inequitably punishes their relatively minor sins, and Lemire's incessant rumination on the nature and practice of loneliness is almost grim enough to eclipse the book's heart. B