Comics of Note: November 9, 2007

Comics of Note: November 9, 2007

It generally takes more than one reading to get the joke of any given Perry Bible Fellowship strip. In part, that's because the humor is intelligent enough to require thought, and obscure enough to require close observation. But it's also because writer-artist Nicholas Gurewitch obscures his sweetness with horror and vice versa, creating little cognitive-dissonance puzzles that often take a moment to unravel. For instance: the comic that has a crowd of honestly cheerful kids smashing the Kool-Aid Man and drinking his tasty beverage from pieces of his shattered corpse. Or the one with a panel of scientists telling a little girl that Santa Claus is dead, then celebrating the durability and absorbancy of the tissues they test on her hysterical tears. Gurewitch's humor is invariably sick, with a heavy dependency on adorable but morbid gags about sex, death, and horrible things happening to children, but even read in bulk in his first collection, The Trial Of Colonel Sweeto And Other Stories (Dark Horse), they don't become oppressive, thanks to their simplicity. (Most contain just a few words, or none at all.) Another contributing factor: Gurewitch's meticulously rich art, which ranges from simple, almost featureless figures to line-perfect parodies of other artists to gorgeously dense, candy-colored mini-extravaganzas. The thin book includes some "lost strips" that even Gurewitch couldn't justify, but mostly, it's a document of the terrific, disconcerting cartoons he's done online and for newspapers and magazines. It's a perfect holiday gift for the irredeemably cynical… A

Bryan Lee O'Malley—perhaps jokingly—once described his Scott Pilgrim series as "cruddy, lo-fi manga." But that won't fly any more. The book's fourth installment, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (Oni) is a marked leap forward for O'Malley's already formidable cartooning. Gone is the subtly ragged linework of previous volumes; instead, O'Malley's draftsmanship has become as bold, crystal-clear, and richly detailed as Jeff Smith's or Jamie Hewlett's. Thankfully, the visual improvement is matched by O'Malley's storytelling. While Scott Pilgrim's breezy mix of indie culture, video games, science fiction, and twentysomething romance is the same as always, Gets It Together moves the characters—including, of course, the bewildered, self-absorbed, titular hero—into more introspective and even mature places. There's no dearth of sight gags, ninja battles, and rock action, but O'Malley's flair for dialogue and compact, nuanced characterization has never felt so organic and effortless. Sure, it's funny stuff, but the cute never gets cutesy, and the plastic-y pop-culture backdrop only makes the sweet human moments that much fuller and more vivid… A-

Of course, Scott Pilgrim isn't the only comic out there coasting on youth culture and hip references. But where SP rocks, Suburban Glamour (Image) sags. Writer-artist Jamie McKelvie—best known for his artwork on Kieron Gillen's Britpop homage Phonogram—has cooked up an adolescent soap opera stocked with wooden characters, gratuitous nods to MySpace and My Chemical Romance, and lines like, "I know what this is. It's called being a teenager." While McKelvie's tip of the hat to Pretty In Pink—in the form of a budding emo/preppie romance and a cool older shop-owner—is sly enough, it's the only understated element of his forced, charmless story. Granted, his art is blankly flawless, and the supernatural shocker at the end of the first issue promises some excitement in the future. But when all the downtrodden freaks are gorgeous and even the main character's mom looks like a stereotypical hipster, Suburban Glamour unintentionally mocks the subculture it's trying to celebrate… C-

It's initially hard to tell where the Luna brothers are going with issue #1 of The Sword (Image); at first, it seems like a low-key character study, full of small incident and talky, carefully shaped character dynamics that recall Love And Rockets as much as anything else. It's all so calm, mundane, and well-realized that it's genuinely shocking when the supernatural emerges and the killing starts—just as shocking as it would be if something similar happened in real life. It'd be unfair to give anything further away, but speaking in generalities, The Sword is genuinely exciting because Jonathan and Joshua Luna (previously known for Girls and Ultra) render real life so well—both narratively and visually, with rich, subtle, earthy coloring—that the fantasy elements start to feel real as well. If the rest of the series is half as good as this amazing beginning, it'll be required reading… A

Writer-artist Naomi Nowak goes in the opposite direction with her graphic novel House Of Clay (NBM), a gorgeously rendered but chilly book in which an unpleasant, ungiving couple send their daughter to work at a sweatshop to get her out of the house. Ostensibly, she's going to become a nurse, except that she faints at the sight of blood. Besides, in her drifty, pastel-sherbet world, it's hard to conceive of someone moving into such a practical, hard-edged profession. Nowak blends Art Deco, rococo, and manga influences for a floaty, surreal style conceived by the page rather than the panel: The impressively creative compositions drip with weird emotional indicators, like the flying skulls and melting, dead-looking birds crossing the page to indicate sadness and grief, or the food dripping across the page to indicate hungry dreams. The whole book is much like a dream: The story isn't particularly grabby, thanks to the protagonist's vague, naïve personality and her lack of any interesting drive or direction, but the surreal art is lovely, and it redefines linear comic-book narrative by making half the pages more like drifty opium-inflected feelings than parts of a story… B

Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow has made a name for himself as a blogger, a pundit, and one of cyberpunk's most promising literary scions. Too bad he can't inspire a comic book worth a crap. Cory Doctorow's Futuristic Tales Of The Here And Now (IDW) is a six-part miniseries that adapts some of his short stories, and it's hard to view it as anything but a vanity project: The first issue is a clumsy, choppy reinterpretation of his story "Anda's Game," which riffs on Orson Scott Card's science-fiction classic Ender's Game while stirring up a debate about online gaming, sweatshop activism, and even childhood obesity. Disjointed and blandly rendered, Dara Naraghi and Esteve Polls' comic version is almost offensively unnecessary—up to and including the self-congratulatory interview with Doctorow that concludes it… D-

Recalling everyone from Moebius to Chester Brown to Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, the otherworldly art of Anders Nilsen is, at its best, brilliant. That's probably why readers might be able to overlook the glaring hollowness and ploy-for-depth preciousness of Nilsen's Big Questions (Drawn & Quarterly). Issue 10 of the series continues its tale of talking birds and dogs—oh, and a couple of mute humans—who must cope with the aftermath of a plane crash. While the plodding mechanics of Nilsen's plot are exactly as surreal as they need to be, there's no getting over his poor excuse for epistemological profundity; here, he trots out Plato's cave allegory as if putting it in the beaks of finches will make it somehow less clichéd, and his extended "chicken or the egg" metaphor is beyond groan-inducing. Plato himself would probably wonder if there's an ideal version of Big Questions out there somewhere, and if we aren't perhaps seeing just a flimsy shadow of it… C+

Talking birds are one thing, but AdHouse Books brings the full-on anthropomorphism with two of its latest releases, Zig Zag and Skyscrapers Of The Midwest. Issue #2 of Zig Zag is an arc of vignettes strung together with some cutely clever segues—not to mention plenty of walking, wisecracking animals (bears, turtles, bugs, etc.). The laughs are weird but cheap, and the long center-story drags, but creator J. Chris Campbell yanks some sharp laughs out of his crisply drafted critters. He even throws in robots and boring old humans for good measure—which leads to one of the book's funniest bits, in which a costume-party attendee dressed as Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan gets mistaken for Stewie from Family Guy. The fourth issue of Skyscrapers Of The Midwest shoots for something more poignant, and comes close to hitting the mark: In a sketchy style beholden to Robert Crumb, Joshua W. Cotter employs a kind of Breadbasket magic realism to probe the tenuous membrane between childhood daydreams and the jarring heartbreak of life. Cotter's characters are cats in human clothing, but they breathe, sweat, and weep convincingly—and his quiet, anecdotal asides and eye-boggling voyages to fantasyland make for a beautiful dynamic… Zig Zag: B-; Skyscrapers Of The Midwest: B+

Like Scott McCloud's biggest wet dream, Yuichi Yokoyama's New Engineering (PictureBox Inc.) is a stunning exercise in narrative experimentation and pictographic overload. There's a smattering of dialogue throughout the graphic novel, but the story takes a backseat to the purity of sheer design and sound effects: Yokoyama stylizes Japanese onomatopoeia, inflates it to monstrous proportions, and sets it loose to interact with an army of odd characters who battle through acutely angled panels and postmodern architecture. Even Yokoyama's blocky, kinetic figures seem indebted to McCloud—particularly his work on Zot!—but the conceptual self-awareness is what makes New Engineering so beholden to the Understanding Comics creator. Ultimately, the book triumphs at tweaking sequential-art convention, even when the intellectual austerity comes off as a bit chilly… B+

Bill Griffith's long-running newspaper strip Zippy The Pinhead seemed to hit a creative wall five or six years ago, until Griffith started having his absurdist hero roam America's highways, admiring the decaying advertising icons and dingy diners of ages past. But the whole "the true America is hidden in plain sight" vibe of those strips wore thin eventually, and after an extended fallow period, Griffith has lately begun to look for new ways to revive his venerable relic of the underground-comics age. The 2006-07 strips collected in Walk A Mile In My Muu-Muu (Fantagraphics) mostly continue Zippy's icon-quest, but mix in some more inspired sections on politics, food, and the tenets of "The Pinhead Lifestyle." To some extent, the Zippy formula may have outlived its usefulness, given that roughly two-thirds of the recent strips could've had their speech balloons and captions generated randomly, but Griffith's art is still pleasingly detailed, and at its best, Zippy The Pinhead still achieves a Dadaist perfection… B-

The Batman who appears in Showcase Presents: Batman And The Outsiders (DC) didn't stick around long enough in the DC universe. This Batman is a better-rounded hero than the square adventurer of the '50s and '60s, and while he's every bit as driven and brilliant as the Batman of today, he's also socially adjusted enough to be part of a team of offbeat heroes, tasked to fight injustice in global hotspots. From a cultural and historical perspective, the Outsiders series is noteworthy for being one of the last of the mid-'80s X-Men/Teen Titans rip-offs, as well as for its finely detailed Jim Aparo art, and its Mike Barr-penned stories ripped straight from Reagan-era international news. But it's mainly a blast to see Batman just a year away from being transformed permanently by the grim-and-gritty era. Some aspects of the modern Batman's character are already evident, like his authoritarian air and attempts at a more mysterious public persona, but Barr presents those traits as relatable, not ridiculously overblown. This Batman is a hero, not a psychopath… B+

Conversely, the Wonder Woman who appears in Showcase Presents: Wonder Woman (DC) is more or less the character that the DC universe has struggled to integrate into its heroic tapestry for half a century now. Starting in 1958, the 500-odd pages of comics in this Showcase present a rough-and-ready heroine who splits her time between Paradise Island and "man's world," tackling mythological beasts and crime kingpins alike. The relentless pace and overall high-spiritedness of these stories make them a breeze to read, but unlike the knottier—even kinkier—WW comics of the '40s, the Wonder Woman of the Silver Age never really jumps off the page as a richly realized character. Even attempts to tell stories of her teenage years, à la Superboy, lack the wild flights of imagination that the DC writers and artists provided to their top-selling hero. There's nothing wrong with these comics per se, but it would've been great if DC had begun the Wonder Woman Showcase volumes with the "New Wonder Woman" of a decade later, who brought feminism and a social conscience to the WW mythos. Those stories remain an anomaly in the Wonder Woman run, and an anomaly worth revisiting… B-

Back to Batman, again… the Batman showcased in Batman/Lobo: Deadly Serious (DC) isn't the grim-and-grittiest version out there; if anything, he's pretty much a superhero cipher, quick to defend innocents or pound on the guilty as he sees them, but there's more characterization in his cape than in his lines. And Lobo's about the same: He says "Frag!" and blows things up, and that's about it. The real star of the two-part miniseries is Sam Kieth's always-bizarre art and a bevy of his usual big-tushed, dough-bellied, cheesecakey women, in this case, a series of luckless victims infected by some power that possesses them and makes them want to rip up their clothes, grab some guns, and blow away everything that moves. Summoned to the spaceship where the girls are going wild, Batman and Lobo follow in their wake as one by one, they get infected, run amuck, pass on the possessing entity, and die. The story is manic, repetitive, and not very interesting, but it does give Kieth a lot of room to indulge his artistic passions for sprawling, weirdo vistas; hyper-exaggerated machinery and monsters; and all other things over-the-top. As usual with Kieth's projects (The Maxx, Zero Girl, Four Women, etc.) worth the price of admission just to see what he does with colors, far more so than to see what he does with Batman and Lobo… C+

DC's "Greatest Stories Ever Told" collections generally make terrific introductions to the company's iconic characters, and Flash: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is no exception. The character's history is difficult to survey, because there have been so many Flashes and so many of them keep dying. But this volume at least hits the highlights from the Golden Age crime-fighter with the Hermes hat through Mark Waid's early-'90s run. A 1978 epic featuring all three characters to wear the Flash or Kid Flash costume up to that point takes up a lot of space, but it's awesome enough to justify its inclusion… A-

While Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead soldiers on, book by book and issue by issue, series Capes died ignominiously in 2003, after its initial three-issue mini-arc failed to sell. In the chagrined intro to Image's collection Capes: Punching The Clock (optimistically subtitled "Volume One"), he bemoans the decisions that may have spiked it, including overly cartoony covers in which his professional superheroes say or think things like "Stop hitting him! His shift is over!" and "Disability, here I come!" But the book's actual contents (which include those three issues, plus a 72-page story from Kirkman's Invincible and a bunch of sketchbook material) aren't nearly so irreverent; the employees of Capes, Inc. do occasionally respond to a supervillain alert with "let the night shift handle it," but mostly, they function like any other massive super-team in a Tick-esque superhero-crammed world. The book leans heavily on Alan Moore's terrific Top 10, and can't help but seem shallow by comparison, but it has some of the same pleasantly crowded, mix of practicality and fantasy as it follows a large company staffed by superheroes who treat the gig as a 9-to-5 routine, and have to deal alternately with time-traveling, super-powered, ambition-crazed crocodiles and the question of whether to drive to work, or catch a ride with a flying friend. Fans of by Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible will catch a familiar smart vibe. B+