Comics Panel: April 18, 2008

Comics Panel: April 18, 2008

On the heels of the back-to-form Vertigo miniseries Another Day, Harvey Pekar returns to Vertigo for another four-issue run of American Splendor, focusing once again on the more mundane side of his daily life. Now that Pekar has retired from the Cleveland VA Hospital and has been comfortably settled into married life for several decades, his stories don't have the "life is so weird and fragile" vibe that made the '70s and '80s run of American Splendor legendary, but it's still nice to check in with the now-much-mellower Pekar and see how he's doing. And he still has an uncanny sense of how to convey what's important about any given anecdote. The lead story in the first issue of this new miniseries tells about Pekar's awkward meeting with an uncertain young fan, and between Pekar's plotting and David Lapham's stark art, readers can feel every painful minute tick by… B+

Graphic Classics Volume Fifteen: Fantasy Classics (Graphic Classics/Eureka) continues the series' admirable marriage of literary genre fare to offbeat illustration. This time out, the likes of L. Frank Baum's "The Glass Dog," H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath," and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" are converted into comics that stay faithful to the text—to the point of being a little dry, sometimes—while presenting art styles that range from the expressively cartoony to the classical and static. An adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by writer Rod Lott and artist Skot Olsen anchors the book, using simplified text and exaggerated drawings to emphasize the existential horror of a monster that's been created, then abandoned. In just 46 pages, Lott and Olsen convey the mood and meaning of Frankenstein as well as any movie adaptation ever has… B+

Speaking of Frankenstein, his famous creation is back in a new incarnation in Image's five-issue series Screamland, which has a bunch of weary monsters hanging out in Hollywood, taking shitty roles and leading shitty lives. The story takes its time going anywhere, but first-time writer Harold Sipe nicely captures the cranky attitudes of some self-loathing big-screen has-beens, and the exchange between "Frank" and Count Dracula when they're reunited in their agent's office is worth the price of issue #1—their blend of mutual veterans' respect and the antipathy of old co-workers who know each other too well is particularly touching. And Héctor Casanova's bleary watercolor washes and heavy black lines give the whole enterprise a charmingly dreamy quality… B

Another new Image series also dealing with monsters in the modern world adopts a looser, sloppier feel and doesn't fare as well. Urban Monsters hits some interesting notes in the first issue, which establishes a world full of monsters who are mostly low-paid, beaten-down, second-class citizens, but since then, the story's chugged along in a loose, directionless way. None of the main characters have particularly distinguished themselves, past a quirk or two, and while the world is fairly interesting—after the zombie cop and the crazy chupacabra guys turn up, it's pretty clear that there's no predicting what's going to poke its head into the story next—the story isn't… C+

In 1943, Walt Disney Studios partnered with author Roald Dahl for the children's book The Gremlins, about impish creatures who sabotage British airplanes in retaliation for the loss of their habitat, though they eventually call a truce in order to aid the war effort. The comics miniseries Return Of The Gremlins (Dark Horse) picks up the story long after the war, as the grandson of the gremlins' favorite RAF pilot returns to the old homestead and finds the creatures willing to pick a fight all over again. The first issue of this three-parter is light on story, but Dean Yeagle's Disney-esque illustrations are charming, and writer Mike Richardson prizes simplicity over mayhem, staying true to Dahl's droll style. Return Of The Gremlins will probably be more rewarding when it's collected, but it's off to a promising start… B

For the past several years, cartoonist Chris Eliopoulos has been drawing the wacky adventures of Reed Richards' son Franklin in a series of strips and stories that make him out to be a Calvin/Dennis/Bart Simpson-esque mischief-maker. The latest one-shot, Fantastic Four Presents Franklin Richards, Son Of A Genius: Spring Break (Marvel), is about par for the course, containing five stories in which Franklin invents something that leaves a path of destruction in its wake, while H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot clucks its electronic tongue. Eliopoulos' art is absolutely darling, but the writing is a pale imitation of classic kiddie comics, with no special snap or raison d'etre. Without that little "4" on his shirt, Franklin wouldn't be especially interesting…C

The history-spanning approach employed by DC's "Greatest Stories Ever Told" series usually provides an enlightening cross-section of its superheroes' careers as seen across different eras. That approach doesn't work nearly as well with Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. More popular than Superman in his 1940s heyday, Captain Marvel enjoyed adventures of unabashed wish-fulfillment. An independent orphan kid in his secret identity, he used the word "Shazam" to turn into "The World's Mightiest Mortal," fighting bad guys in stories so dreamlike and whimsical that they sometimes suggested they were created by kids, not just aimed at them. Later adventures gave him an expanded family, in the form of other superheroes and a talking tiger named Mr. Tawky Tawny. (The tiger is conspicuously absent in this book).Captain Marvel's adventures ended for a time in 1953 when a long-in-the-works lawsuit found that the character infringed on DC's Superman. In a weird twist of fate, he was revived after being licensed to DC in the early '70s, then later wholly acquired by the company. But he's never quite fit into the modern comics age, and this collection unwisely favors Captain Marvel's latter-day revival, and stories that alternately try to imitate his early adventures, or contrast his sunny attitude with the darkening comics worlds of recent decades. The past looks all the better by comparison… B-

Rick Spears and Rob G's freshly collected series Repo (Image) reads like an unholy mating between late-period Quentin Tarantino and early-period Frank Miller; if Tarantino wasn't so struck on retro-style movies, it'd be easy to see him taking on this futuristic grunge-'em-up as a film project. The story loosely follows two repo men—tough, bald black guy and cocky, skinny white guy—trying to get their hands on a rich man's organ-donor clone, which has been liberated by an all-clone clone-rights group. The creators have a lot of fun with repo-man banter and with outsized characters with strongly stylized speech patterns, à la Miller's Ronin or Give Me Liberty, and the story moves along at a nicely crazed clip, injecting killer tigers, a moon-based hotel, and a lot of testosterone-laden, over-the-top violence into the mix. Best of all, it doesn't take itself too seriously, which amps up the already-coked fun… B+

It's been two years since Wendigo writer-director Larry Fessenden made the film version of the story that became the graphic novel The Last Winter (Image). The movie is finally coming out on DVD this year—first in May as a Blockbuster exclusive, then in June in stores—which gives comics fans a month or two to read the graphic novel and wonder how the hell Fessenden's film pulled off those events with a micro budget. Sort of a cheapie horror film with an environmental peg, the story takes place in Alaska, where climate changes have caused freaky temperature and weather fluctuations, and the permafrost is melting, possibly releasing… something. The plot lands on the cheese scale midway between Prophecy and The Thing, but the execution is fairly creepy, even though too many of the characters look alike in Brahm Revel's thick-lined art, and the end is more thud than shudder. Still, the art does take full advantage of the limits of duotone, using its blacks for solidity and its blues for effective chill, and the slowly unfolding what's-stalking-us? mystery seems more likely to work on the page, where the pacing expectations are different, than on the screen… C+

Scott Morse has taken a weird step from the experimental, ephemeral, ever-changing series Soulwind and the agreeably cosmic weirdness of Ancient Joe over to a more predictable, contained kid-book silliness in his Magic Pickle series. The freshly reprinted first book, simply titled Magic Pickle (Scholastic), introduces the title character, an, um, pickle endowed with super powers and tasked with stopping various other experimental vegetables who, um, went bad. It reads like a Cartoon Network series waiting to happen, and it looks like one too, thanks to newly added vivid colors and Morse's cute, blunt, thick-lined art. It's a fairly charming and goofy all-ages book, but it lacks the depth and cleverness of his other (also generally kid-friendly) work, at least for those not tickled by produce puns… B

While Lars Martinson did spend three years in Japan as an "Assistant Language Teacher," he says any resemblance between his life and that of the Japanese ALT protagonist in Tonoharu: Book One (Pliant) is "anecdotal." Which isn't much of a surprise; if Martinson was as much of a schlep as his hero, he probably would never have finished even this first volume. (The series is projected as a four-book sequence.) The teacher, Daniel Wells, is a drifty mope who lacks basic motivational and Japanese-language skills, and after traveling to Japan to begin work, he rapidly winds up isolated, dissociated from his Japanese teacher peers and from the other, more dynamic people working in his program. Tonoharu's art is terrific, and its finely detailed, heavily crosshatched world, populated with cartoonish, blobby people, recalls some of the standards of Japanese comics without actually looking anything like most manga. In some ways, the art and the story both recall Guy Delisle's superior personal travelogues Pyongyang and Shenzhen. The problem is that Tonoharu's star is more like Jeffrey Brown, sitting about haplessly and wondering why he never gets anywhere. In one long stretch of Tonoharu, he's told that he has a week to prepare for his first classes, where he'll be expected to introduce himself; first he's uncomfortable because he has no idea what to do for those introductions, then he's uncomfortable because he has no idea what to do with the week leading up to them, then he's uncomfortable when he has to give those introductions, and he's unprepared and doesn't know what's expected of him. At some point, watching a loser do nothing and then sweat about the results gets tiresome, and by the end of the book, there's no real compelling reason to come back for the next one, except for the art, and for those who like discomfort humor and painful squirming… B-

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