Comics Panel: February 14, 2008

Comics Panel: February 14, 2008

Through some inexplicable alchemy, cartoonist Adam Koford has turned seemingly every annoying Internet meme—from hobo worship to "I see what you did there"—into something whimsical and charming in Meet The Laugh-Out-Loud Cats, a collection of single-panel cartoons packaged to look like a old 1973 Dell paperback. In the intro, Koford claims that "Laugh-Out-Loud Cats" originally ran in a few newspapers in 1912, and featured leaf-loving, happy-go-lucky Pip and his pal, duck-hating, cigar-chomping Kitteh, two vagabond felines who unaccountably speak in 21st-century net-slang. (Sample panel: Upon tasting the evening's hobo stew, Kitteh says, "Fail has a flavr.") The front of the paperback reads "First Time In Print In Over Sixty Years," and the back bears a stamp from the "Inland Empire Municipal Library System," creating the illusion that this is an artifact unearthed from some used bookstore or rummage sale. The multiple conceptual layers aren't necessary, exactly, but they do add some value to the reading experience, enhancing the timeless quality of Koford's cute, lovingly drawn little cartoons. Although the strip can be read online at apelad.blogspot.com, the book (available exclusively at lulu.com) is the better way to go, because a large part of the appeal of "Laugh-Out-Loud Cats" is the way Koford takes phrases and jokes that have worn out their welcome and turns them into classic Americana… A

Like a lot of Vertigo's prestige graphic-novel projects, the Mat Johnson-penned, Warren Pleece-drawn Incognegro is smart, entertaining, and almost daring, but it doesn't ever quite cross the line from diversion to art. Inspired by Johnson's own experiences as a light-skinned multiracial man, Incognegro imagines the adventures of a Harlem-based reporter who passes as white in the 1930s South in order to shed light on lynchings and Ku Klux Klan activity. When his own darker-skinned brother is arrested in Mississippi, the intrepid journalist risks exposure in order to find out what happened. Incognegro offers a good story, slickly told, but its insights into race relations are mostly shallow, and its pulp imagery too tame. The best sequence in the book has the hero held captive in a chicken coop by an inbred white family that hopes to side with the blacks in the coming race war. Those 10 pages are lurid, strange, and funny, and show a vision of racial harmony that's ingeniously cuckoo. The rest of Incognegro is too conventional by contrast… B

Fans of the Flight comics anthology series shouldn't miss out on The Amulet, a solo series by Kazu Kibuishi. Like the Flight books he spearheads as editor, his solo work is gorgeously illustrated and colored, and written with a simple clarity that makes it accessible to kids without being too babyish for adults. Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper (Scholastic) starts out more than a little like The Spiderwick Chronicles, with a woman and her two kids relocating to a spooky old country house once inhabited by a distant relative who mysteriously vanished. Then there's the magical amulet and the horrible creatures and the freaky portal, and the story starts feeling like something Hayao Miyazaki might have produced. The characters are highly cartoonish and a bit like dialed-down versions of Sam Kieth's, but the deep colors and creepy, detailed monsters are straight-up Miyazaki. The next book can't come soon enough… A

It's been 15 years since Fantagraphics published the first installment of Joe Sacco's groundbreaking Palestine, a miniseries that wrapped in 1995 after nine issues, which never sold more than a few thousand copies each. In the years since, Sacco and Palestine have become critically acclaimed to such a degree that Fantagraphics has just released Palestine: The Special Edition, a handsome hardcover that the publisher describes as "the 'Criterion' Palestine." Actually, in comparison to the home-video industry's leading purveyor of DVD special editions, Fantagraphics' new Palestine falls a little short. The introduction by the late Edward Said appeared in the previous collection, and the samples of Sacco's photo references, notebook pages, and abandoned drawings only run a little over 20 pages. On the other hand, the remaining 288 pages are filled with one of the most vital, engaging, artfully executed comics projects in the history of the form. So there's that. More than a decade after it was completed, Palestine is still one of the most thoughtful examinations of the Palestinian/Jewish conflict in any medium, with Sacco thrusting himself and his own sense of dislocation into every finely etched line and probing interview. This is stirring reportage, acknowledging the common humanity of the Middle East's powerful and powerless, without ignoring either side's faults. Right up to its final image of a bus at a fork in the road, Palestine finds hope and despair in Israel—though more of the latter than the former… A

There's something weirdly fan-fiction-esque about the various comic arcs collected in G.I. Joe Vs. The Transformers Omnibus (Devil's Due). There's the crossover nature of the stories, which rewrite the history of the two popular '80s Hasbro cartoons in order to tie them into each other. (Cobra comes into being when its founders run across the Transformers' buried ship and turn the giant robots into weapons/slaves; G.I. Joe is founded to combat them.) There's the way the stories dutifully name-check as many of the two series' characters and eras as possible, while still leaving most of the heavy lifting and screen time to the big fan favorites: That cover image of Snake Eyes standing on Optimus Prime's shoulder really sums things up. And there's the way the stories manage to recapitulate any hint of inter-character romance from the cartoons or the subsequent comics series, even though they move at a pace that only grants, say, two pages to the Scarlett/Snake Eyes relationship. The stories aren't all that challenging: The one in which a freak space-time rift forces G.I. Joe and Cobra to team up and travel through time to rescue various Transformers and save Earth is fairly typical. It feels about like one of the old G.I. Joe special weeklong plot arcs, written for little kids by big kids, and with little to none of the grimmer seriousness of the G.I. Joe comic series. But the glossy, loving art gives all the familiar characters their due, and shows just how bad the '80s cartoons really looked. All the people who are constantly bitching that some new update or exploitation of an old franchise is raping their childhood should check out this giant omnibus, which will essentially pat their childhood on the head, feed it a candy bar, and tell it that it's wicked cool…B

The comics continuation of another TV cartoon, Gargoyles, feels much less like fanfic and much more like the show, which makes sense, since series producer-creator Greg Weisman is scripting it. It takes up after the series' second season, ignoring the lackluster third season (also known as The Goliath Chronicles), which was produced without Weisman. The massive delays between issues has been exasperating and has made it difficult for anyone but the true fanatics to follow the release schedule, but the collection Gargoyles: Clan-Building, Volume One (Slave Labor) compensates by assembling the six issues that have come out over the last year and a half. There isn't a lot of forward drive to these stories, which mostly revive old villains, recap old plots, re-examine old relationships, and re-introduce a huge cast, but given that the show launched more than 15 years ago at this point, some reminders seem necessary. And a storyline involving the Illuminati winds through these initial issues, suggesting greater forces and more complicated scenarios at work. Fans of the show may just be happy to see these characters active again, and read dialogue written by someone who actually understands their motivations and knows exactly how they should sound… B-

Jason's rigid, blank-eyed proto-animal characters and utterly deadpan delivery aren't always perfectly suited to his material; certainly they worked better in his last graphic novel, I Killed Adolf Hitler, than in his newest one, The Last Musketeer (Fantagraphics). His formal, thin-lined style feels a little slight when it comes to the kind of action seen in Musketeer, as a rapier-wielding relic of the past comes up against invading aliens. It's never really clear whether the hero, Athos, actually is one of the stars of the Dumas classic—he speaks with a heightened formality and makes reference to events from 400 years ago, but he also hangs out in bars, bumming drinks off strangers, which raises the question of whether he's just a harmless eccentric. Either way, a series of attacks from space gives him reason to go on and to become a hero again. Jason certainly doesn't go all-action, or leave out the dry humor: Entire pages are devoted to the alien leader, a Ming The Merciless knockoff, sitting around bugging his guards with personal questions, apparently out of boredom. The end is a neat little kick and the whole package is gently entertaining, without being as tight, twisty, or clever as Jason's last two books… B-

The new action film Jumper lacks a lot of things, including a remotely sympathetic protagonist and a sense that his world exists for any reason other than to show off how cool he is. But mainly, it lacks interesting antagonists—the "paladins" running around killing anyone who can teleport, or "jump," don't bother explaining their philosophy, past one rushed, silly line about how only God should be able to be in all places at once. They're one-dimensional cartoon villains, and the film suffers for it. Jumper: Jumpscars (Oni) fills in the blanks with some much-appreciated backstory, in which a neophyte paladin takes on her first jumper-hunt. She's racked with doubts, especially about killing children who've just come into their powers, but events make a compelling argument that it's necessary, and further cast Hayden Christensen's unpleasant Jumper star in a bad light. Jumpscars is fairly short and simple, and maybe a little too shallow to stand entirely on its own without the film, but its protagonist is more compelling than the film's. Brian Hurtt's art style is better suited to vehicles and environments than people—key facial features keep disappearing at random, and dig that Neanderthal forehead on Samuel L. Jackson's character—but a solid story by married writing partners Nunzio Defilippis and Christina Weir (New X-Men: Academy X) still make this a better-than-average film tie-in… B

Slowly but surely, Eric Shanower is continuing his hyper-detailed, hyper-researched black-and-white saga Age Of Bronze, the story of the Trojan War. As of the end of the third collected volume, Age Of Bronze: Betrayal, Part One, it looks like the buildup, politicking, alliance-building, hero-building, negotiating, omen-reading, and prophecying are finally ending, and the war itself is about to begin. But probably none of the series' fans are in a hurry for that. The immense cast makes Shanower's detailed, illustrated recaps necessary, but his attention to the details of those characters—their lives, their personalities, and their voices as well as their intricately designed clothes—is always a pleasure. The war could go on forever, but the next volume can't come soon enough… A

Character revamps don't get much more radical than Wonder Woman's late-'60s transformation. Deeply influenced by The Avengers and James Bond, editor/artist Mike Sekowsky and writer Dennis O'Neil removed her superpowers and remade her as a colorfully clad kung-fu fighter under the guidance of a blind martial-arts master named I Ching. (Because what else would a blind martial-arts master be called?) Diana Prince: Wonder Woman, Vol. 1 (DC) collects the earliest issues in what would ultimately be a four-year side trip. The storytelling is simultaneously brisk and awkward, but the art still looks vibrant, and the collection now reads as a fascinating time capsule, filled with dialogue about things happening at "that new hippie club" and other gems. If only all bad ideas looked so interesting after a couple of decades… B

The classic Teen Titans lineup is getting attention with some new comics: The limited six-issue series Teen Titans: Year One (DC) teams writer Amy Wolfram with artist Karl Kerschl in a retelling of how Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and Aqua Lad first formed their own underage superteam. Wolfram is a veteran of cartoons, including the Teen Titans series, and she writes in broad strokes for a young audience, but the approach works, particularly when paired with the pleasingly cartoony Kerschl art… B

Even better, Teen Titans: The Lost Annual (DC) retrieves a "lost" story from the original run. It's actually a new script by original Titans writer Bob Haney that's been illustrated by cartoonists Jay Stephens and Mike Allred. Well, "new" isn't exactly the right word. This title's been in limbo for a few years now. Haney died in 2004, which casts a bit of a pall over a fun story of the Titans teaming up with JFK to fight aliens in space. But then, the passing of time, the changing of fashion, and the story's weirdly bittersweet twist already makes this an oddly melancholy outing. Original Titans artist Nick Cardy provides the nifty cover. He's still alive and well. Someone get that man a book… B+

Before achieving fame as the creator of Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, Brian K. Vaughan labored in the superhero trenches. Batman: False Faces (DC) collects a handful of DC Universe stories, most involving Batman. They now read as interesting formative works. A three-issue story intended as a tryout for a shot as the title's regular writer suggests that Vaughan might have put a surprisingly emo-ish spin on the character. But the best story, drawn from his days working in a psychiatric ward, casts a sympathetic eye at Batman's mentally ill villains. A panel of the Mad Hatter asking "Why am I mad?" suggests that Vaughan needed to move on to titles where he could dig beneath the surface of such questions. B