Comics Panel: April 4, 2008

Comics Panel: April 4, 2008

Summer's approaching, and that means it's time for the big comic-book companies to roll out their crossover books, those universe-spanning stories that promise to change everything, make little sense to anyone not deeply immersed in their fictional universe's history, and piss off hardcore fans. Marvel's is Secret Invasion, an eight-issue miniseries written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by the impressively untamed Leinil Yu. The premise, with shades of Battlestar Galactica and John Carpenter's The Thing, is plenty hooky: The Skrulls, shape-shifting aliens that have long been a staple of the Marvel Universe, have decided to take over Earth by infiltrating it at the highest level. Anyone, it turns out, might be a Skrull, even some of Marvel's most famous heroes. With a lot to set up, the first issue doesn't exploit the paranoia to its fullest potential, though a few twists and turns suggest plenty of shocks to come. With the groundwork laid, Bendis will hopefully be able to capitalize better on the story's creepy potential. Along with, of course, the levels of supercharged ass-kickery these stories require… B

Far from being a case of diminishing returns, Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat 2(Pantheon) is actually more accomplished than the first great volume, with longer story arcs and a more consistently humorous tone contributing to a solider package. Again, Sfar's 1930s Algerian cat protagonist is a cunning mix of amorality and affection. His species gives him access to places most people can't go, but his philosophical dismissal of much of the human experience lends itself to entertaining commentary on what he sees in those places. Sfar cheats on some of the details—the cat can understand all the languages of people and animals, but people can only understand the cat when it's narratively convenient, for no clear reason—but that's beside the point in a book that's more about telling stories than explaining why they work. This time around, there's less intellectual musing on religion, and more fable-ish wonder, as the cat hangs around a wandering storyteller, his aging lion friend, and the poisonous snake who dogs their travels, hoping to someday give them a peaceful death. Eventually, that story gives way to a lengthy, picaresque business involving a Russian Jew who escapes the revolution by stowing away in a box of precious books, and winds up indirectly involving the cat's rabbi master in a lengthy search for an African Jerusalem. It's all heady, crazy, barbarous stuff, full of surprises (including a deeply weird run-in with Tintin and Snowy) and unpredictable adventure… A-

Meanwhile, Sfar's sometime partner Lewis Trondheim goes for a considerably lighter mood with Kaput & Zosky (First Second), a series of short comic vignettes about two mayhem-happy aliens who jet from world to world, blasting people, taking over planets, and generally wreaking havoc. Or at least trying to; they often run into obstacles that quickly send them back into space, frustrated. The stories play out like more complicated versions of Trondheim's Mister I and Mister O, in which simple characters silently fail at the same simple task over and over, in increasingly complicated ways. Kaput & Zosky mostly differs by being wordy; the aliens' repetitive chats about blasting and conquering sometimes recall Rufferto from the Groo books, with his simple, constantly expressed fixations on fighting, eating, and how cool Groo is. But the book is short enough to not wear out its welcome, and bright and playful enough to be a fun, quick diversion… B+

It takes significantly more time to unpack all the themes and threads at work in Cyril Pedrosa's chilling Three Shadows (First Second), which was written to tackle the emotions raised by a child's death. A couple and their young son live happily together, until three mysterious shadows start haunting them from a distance. Fearing for their boy, the parents go to increasingly desperate ends to protect him, until the father finally takes him away on a long journey, trying to outdistance the shadows. Initially fixed in the details of quotidian life, Three Shadows becomes increasingly haunted and dreamy, finally reaching a vastly metaphorical, abstract fairy-tale plateau before coming back to earth. The transitions are sometimes jarring, but they're padded by the way the art shifts with them—sometimes it's sharply cartoony, almost in the Cartoon Network house style, while sometimes it's more formless and primeval. Pedrosa is a former Disney animator (on Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Hercules), and his command of styles is impressive, but in this melancholy, hefty black-and-white book, the well-expressed sense of grief and inevitability that come through the storyline predominate even over the art… A-

Two years ago, DC expanded its big trade-paperback collection of Alan Moore superhero stories by adding Moore's wildly popular "grim 'n' gritty" Batman novella The Killing Joke. Only DC—apparently incapable of doing anything Moore-related that won't end up pissing Moore off—neglected to include the original story's opening and closing splash pages, which contain no dialogue, but are still intentional mood-setters by Moore and artist Brian Bolland. Now DC has repackaged the story again in the prestige hardcover Batman: The Killing Joke: The Deluxe Edition, and guess what? The splash pages are still missing! It's as though DC were answering Moore's public complaints by saying, "Screw you, magic boy! We bought it, we own it, we'll do as we please." (Coming soon, surely: The Watchmen without all those boring text pieces, and V For Vendetta with all the cultural references made more America-friendly.) So how is this new Killing Joke "deluxe?" It comes in a slightly larger format, and contains a short, kind of dopey intro by Tim Sale, plus a few pages of commentary and additional art by Bolland, who also re-colored the original story. Bolland's re-coloring job is superior, but not tremendously so, and it's hardly worth the uptick in price. As for the story, it holds up well as an emotionally resonant, smartly crafted examination of how The Joker and The Batman have channeled adversity in different (yet similar) ways. Moore and Bolland overplay the shock value and delineate the psychology a little too neatly, but as a piece of comics storytelling, The Killing Joke is practically a textbook on how to elevate thin genre fare through sheer craft. Someday, maybe DC will pay Moore and Bolland's work the proper respect… The original story: A-; This package: C-

Writer Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert never shied away from showing the grim side of combat in their DC war comics, but when they were telling stories about American heroes, they generally shied away from any suggestion that all the killing and destruction might be ultimately pointless, or even immoral. To get that aspect of war out of their system, in 1965 Kanigher and Kubert created the character Hans von Hammer, a World War I German fighter pilot known as "The Hammer Of Hell" or "Enemy Ace." Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace collects every Hammer story from '65 to 1982, featuring art by Kubert, Frank Thorne, Neil Adams, John Severin, and Howard Chaykin—all masters of the medium. Something about duels in the sky and a tortured anti-hero seemed to bring out the best in Kanigher and his artists. There's poetry in the captions and drawings, as well as a strong sense of how aerial combat differs from battle on the ground, and how it makes colleagues out of people assigned to riddle each other with bullets. For some time now, the war comics have been the best the "Showcase Presents" line has to offer. Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace may be the best of the best… A

Tim Sievert's debut graphic novel That Salty Air (Top Shelf) is a starkly designed, lovingly drawn maritime tale about a bankrupt fisherman who gets some bad news about his mother and some good news about his wife in the same week, and works out his emotions by wreaking havoc on the oceanic ecosystem. Sievert draws whales, squid, and rolling seas with an eye toward making them look dynamic and primal, but his narrative and dialogue skills aren't yet up to the level of his art. There's a lot of hoo-hah in That Salty Air about what the sea takes and what the sea owes, and frankly, it's all distractingly blunt and completely unnecessary. Purge all the words from That Salty Air, and the story would still make sense, and would be immeasurably improved… C+

About halfway through Michel Rabagliati's latest graphic novel, Paul Goes Fishing (D&Q;), the title character talks about how he once stayed up all night reading The Catcher In The Rye from cover to cover, because he identified with it so much. A lot of Rabagliati's fans know exactly what he means. Like Catcher In The Rye—and like François Truffaut's "Antoine Doinel" films—Rabagliati's "Paul" comics are charmingly episodic and digressive, using lightly fictionalized autobiography to comment on how people and their environs grow and change together, if not always at the same rate. The difference is that Paul himself is a much less prickly character than Holden Caulfield or Antoine Doinel (or Depuy & Berberian's "Monsieur Jean," whose comic-book stories are a clear influence on Rabagliati). Yes, Paul gets angry sometimes, and yes, he can be a hypocrite, or obnoxiously self-absorbed. But mainly, he's a sweet guy: sentimental, helpful, loving, and sincere. In Paul Goes Fishing, he recalls a camping trip he and his pregnant girlfriend went on in the early '90s, but the story ranges freely to encompass the time Paul ran away from home as a teenager, a disastrous fishing trip he went on with his father, the changing fortunes of the graphic-design and aeronautics industries, the quirks and delusions of sportsmen, a piece of Quebecois history, and the complications of expectant parenthood. The only knock against the book is that Rabagliati doesn't always seem to have a consistent, clear vision of where he's going with all these reminiscences. In the main, Paul Goes Fishing is about the delicate balance of nature—human and otherwise—and how we try to compensate for what we perceive as flaws in our lives and in the world. But mostly, this is a lovely, deeply moving set of ruminations on how hope begets despair, which begets hope yet again… A-

Andi Watson follows up his Glister series with Princess At Midnight (Image), a similarly simple-lined, sweet little all-ages storybook about a longsuffering home-schooled girl who becomes princess of her own magical land when she sleeps. But where the Glister booklets tell complete, narratively twisty little stories, Princess At Midnight feels like the first part of an incomplete work, one that ends just as it pulls out its big narrative twist, and before it comes to any kind of conclusion. The story (first presented in last year's Carroll & Graf anthology Best New Manga, and presented here with extra pages) is broad, simple, and repetitive, with the titular princess picking a series of fights with a neighboring kingdom and escalating them at ruinous cost. It seems like a political satire, but the point is never made, and while the book pulls off some fun action, it winds up feeling like a wasted effort compared to Watson's past books… C-

For 14 years, Terry Moore's indie series Strangers In Paradise circled around but refused to resolve a single, central relationship, until tension became frustration became irritation became apathy in many of his fans. Now that the series has finally ended, Moore seems to be departing the Strangers In Paradise world as radically as possible with issue #1 of his new self-published series, Echo (Abstract Studios), which takes a pointedly technical, science-fiction tack rather than Strangers' more organic romance/drama/comedy blend. In the first issue, a young woman testing an experimental flight suit is seemingly betrayed by her controllers, who send missiles at her to see whether the suit can take it. Below, a young woman is caught up in the aftermath of the explosion, with weird results. Much like Jeff Smith's RASL (another recent series launch by an indie creator who was tied up with a beloved pet project for many years), Echo moves slowly and deliberately, establishing some major plot hooks, but taking more time with environmental details and deliberate storytelling that will look terrific in collected form, but that don't give first-issue readers a lot to work with. And yet Moore's wonderfully accomplished good-girl art and the vast sense of freedom inherent in an all-new story are both instant draws… A

Brian Wood's recent success with the stellar Vertigo series DMZ might explain Vertigo's recent release of a collected version of his mediocre 2002-2003 series Fight For Tomorrow. And DMZ fans may well find some things to like in the book's relatively generic story, in which a young fighter pines for the girlfriend who defined his painful past. There's some of the same sense of street-smart specificity and immediacy in the six-issue series, and some of the same grit. But mostly, Fight For Tomorrow feels like an '80s kung-fu B-movie, in which a none-too-bright, never-say-die kid on the outs fights for a girl and for revenge on the tough criminals who made his life hell. Come to think of it, it'd make a pretty good kickboxing B-movie today, given the style that could be laid over its lack of substance. But as a book, with fairly ugly, clunky art by Denys Cowan and Kent Williams, it lacks style or substance. C-