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Comics Panel: February 26, 2009


Most people with a passing familiarity with the modern history of comic books are aware of the massive screwjob DC Comics handed to Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Fewer people are aware that in the 1950s, an impoverished Shuster made some easy cash by producing kinky bondage drawings for fetish magazines. Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator, Joe Shuster(Abrams ComicArts), written by celebrated designer Craig Yoe, is a bit sensationalistic, but how could it not be? Aside from illuminating a titillating (though depressing) aspect of Shuster’s career, the book sheds some light on the moral climate of the period and how the comics—which will give fans a bit of a kick, just from how much the men resemble Superman, and the women Lois Lane—helped fuel the paranoia generated by legendary anti-comics crusader Dr. Frederic Wertham. Shuster’s fetish comics also managed to become embroiled in the then-voguish case of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a gang of Jewish hoodlums who committed a pair of more-or-less random murders—a fact that Wertham exploited to its fullest. The sexual content of the comics is pretty tame by today’s standards; the book’s value lies in finding them and using them to shape what we know about both Shuster and Wertham. Though Marvel bigwig Stan Lee, who’s often been accused of the sort of tactics that disenfranchised Siegel and Shuster, is certainly a curious choice to write this book’s introduction… B


Graphic Classics Volume Sixteen: Oscar Wilde is one of the Eureka Productions series’ best, featuring lengthy, well-rendered adaptations of four Wilde stories. The best of the bunch is Alex Burrows and Lisa K. Weber’s take on The Picture Of Dorian Gray, which plays up the tale’s gothic horror elements and demimonde decadence. Burrows streamlines the novel to fit it into 45 comics pages, but the results never feel rushed or cramped, largely because Weber conveys Dorian Gray’s despicable behavior with a light touch that serves Wilde’s sense of irony. The other three adaptations in the book—Antonella Caputo and Nick Miller on “The Canterville Ghost,” Rich Rainey and Stan Shaw on “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” and Tom Pomplun and Molly Kiely on Salomé—aren’t quite in the same league as Dorian Gray, but they’re still strong. Eureka has also recently reissued one of the earlier Graphic Classics—Volume Six: Ambrose Bierce—in an expanded edition that includes 70 new pages. Many of the book’s adaptations of Bierce’s short fiction do feel rushed and cramped in a way the Wilde book doesn’t, but the volume redeems itself with a stretch of one- and two-page versions of Bierce’s sardonic “fables,” rendered by the likes of Roger Langridge, Johnny Ryan, Shary Flenniken, and P.S. Mueller. Rarely has a writer been better suited to pure cartooning than Bierce… Wilde: A-; Bierce: B

The first collection of Adam Koford’s “Laugh-Out-Loud Cats” was one of last year’s best comics, both for its retro packaging and the smart, sweet one-panel cartoons within. The more conventionally designed The Laugh-Out-Loud Cats Sell Out (Abrams ComicArts) is a case of diminishing returns. The strip’s central conceit—that two hobo cats from a long-lost early-20th-century comic speak in 21st-century net-slang—is still amusing, and the panels are still beautifully drawn, but the sense of delight and discovery becomes a little paler the second time around. Of course, since the first book is tough to find and the second book is widely available, The Laugh-Out-Loud Cats Sell Out may be some people’s first exposure to Koford’s kitties, and on their own merits, these cartoons are plenty enjoyable. But here’s hoping that the talented Koford is willing to let well enough alone, and start trying something different… B


A similar sense of diminishing returns haunts Little Nothings: The Prisoner Syndrome (NBM), a second collection of diary comics from prolific French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim. The first collection, Curse Of The Umbrella, was light and fleet, focusing on Trondheim’s little insecurities, his hypochondria and nervousness, and his weird little joys, often at seeing other people discomfited as thoroughly as he generally is. The second book is a little more ambitious; as Trondheim decides he needs to take more trips to avoid “the prisoner syndrome,” where people with limited movement options increasingly succumb to learned helplessness, he has more experiences in foreign countries, where unusual settings tend to substitute for unusual thoughts. The backdrops are colorful, but Trondheim’s random whimsies and worries seem flattened by comparison. Prisoner Syndrome is still a fun read, with the intimacy of a diary and the fine-lined draftsmanship that makes Trondheim’s work so enjoyable, but it’s a bit bland by comparison with the quirkier first book… B

By this point, DC Comics’ “Showcase Presents” line of black-and-white paperbacks should be about to run dry of quality material from the ’50s to the ’80s, but darned if Showcase Presents: Strange Adventures Vol. 1 isn’t one of the best of the run. Collecting 20 issues of DC’s premier science-fiction anthology of the mid-’50s, the book features short, twisty stories written and drawn by DC’s A-team: John Broome, Otto Binder, Edmond Hamilton, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, and Carmine Infantino. The plots are frequently ridiculous—and often monkey-heavy—but the art is dynamic and the tone appropriately light, in that can-do Silver Age style. A plea to DC: Please keep publishing these… A


Very few comics went through as many permutations as Matt Wagner’s Grendel, and none were more satisfying in the long run. Beginning as an interesting anti-heroic twist on the standard superhero actioner, it quickly grew into a more profound meditation on the nature of violence, with “Grendel” growing from the masked pseudonym of the main character to a demonic stand-in for the persistence of madness. Grendel: Devil’s Reign(Dark Horse) was the final story arc when the series wrapped up in 1990; written by Wagner and drawn by Tim Sale, it takes place in the far future, where corporate titan Orion Assante helps restore order to a world wracked by vampire attacks and the collapse of a corrupt Catholic Church. Eventually consolidating his political power under the guise of business consolidation, he worries the remaining nations enough to set off a major war. But the details of the plot and the science-fiction elements—as ambitious and well-realized as they are—are second to the grim psychological decay of Assante, and the dire ending of the series, which snuffs out the small lights of hope and humanity that previous story arcs had left open. It’s a bleak finale, and Sale’s work still has its detractors, but overall, it’s the only way things could end, and Wagner’s storytelling has never been deeper, or darker. The new Grendel: Devil’s Reign trade paperback (Dark Horse) is a handsome collection, collecting all seven issues with re-colored art by Matt Hollingsworth, and its price tag makes it inviting to anyone who wants to be immersed in Wagner’s complex moral universe… A-

The penultimate installment of Bryan Lee O’Malley six-book series, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe(Oni) kicks off with its slacker goofball protagonist happily coasting, mostly confident in his ongoing quest to defeat the seven evil exes of the love of his life (and current live-in girlfriend), Ramona Flowers. Of course, with only one book left, the looming shadows that have been dogging Scott’s precious little life since the beginning of the series are beginning to close in, resulting in a relatively dark installment. Of course, a comedic series heavily influenced by 8-bit video games and Canadian indie rock can’t really get too depressing, but Vs. The Universe is heavy on ominous, thickly inked panels and light on the sort of endearingly silly digressions (recipes and musical numbers) found in previous volumes. Yet the development feels natural within the ongoing narrative of Scott’s reluctant maturation, and it benefits greatly from the increased presence of the supporting cast, specifically Scott’s ex-girlfriend/bandmate Kim Pine. As with any penultimate chapter, book five spends most of its time putting the pieces in place for events to come, but it manages to maintain the series’ momentum and heart in the process… B+

Much to the dismay of fans of the world’s greatest super-team, the new iteration of the Justice League has largely been a disappointment since its 2006 reboot. Ed Benes’ art is overblown and strained, and the initial stories by novelist Brad Meltzer were tarred by poor characterization and a glacial pace. Things improved somewhat under Dwayne McDuffie, who’d written some memorable episodes of the Justice League animated series, but overall, it was still somewhat lackluster. Nothing in particular has changed in the last two issues, but the appearance in #28 of a number of characters from the departed Milestone Comics line was a cause for celebration among a few select fans. Milestone was an attempt in the mid-1990s to address the lack of African-American artists and writers in the mainstream comics world, and while its books weren’t always the best, they did provide a showcase for creators—McDuffie included—who might not otherwise have been able to catch a break. DC now owns Milestone’s characters, and at the conclusion of Justice League Of America #30 (DC), an otherwise-mediocre affair, is a preview for the new JLA lineup. In addition to having more black characters than at any time in its 49-year history, the team now features Wise Son, a former gangbanger and latter-day Black Muslim. While the jury is still out on the quality of the stories featuring this new Justice League, comic-book message boards are already on fire with depressingly predictable judgments from comics readers, not the most progressive bunch in the world of fandom… B-

J. Michael Straczynski’s 2003 Supreme Power series came from one of those convoluted origins that can only be found in comic books. Taking place outside of the normal Marvel continuity, it was essentially a reboot of the origin and activities of the Squadron Supreme, a super-team that was itself a barely disguised version of DC’s Justice League Of America. For many years, the Squadron’s stories were pretty forgettable, but in 1985—responding to the wave of comics like Watchmen and Miracleman, which attempted to place superheroics in a real-world political and psychological context—Mark Gruenwald reinvented them to tell the grim story of a utopian experiment that ended in disaster. Straczynski, ably abetted by talented artist Gary Frank, took a similar tactic in Supreme Power, focusing on the political repercussions and psychological gamesmanship in the existence of superheroes; Supreme Power: Contact (Marvel) collects the first six issues—which largely focus on the origin and activities of Superman analogue Hyperion—into a flashy, colorful glossy hardback. Straczynski has black fun with his retelling of the Superman legend through a highly jaundiced eye, and some of the most revealing scenes come when we see the risks of lying to someone who holds such terrible power in his hands. Although it’s a pricey collection, it’s a great place to jump in for fans who missed Supreme Power the first time out, as it gets even better from here… B+

Kryptonite has always been more for Superman’s writers than for his villains; while the bad guys need a way to bring the Big Blue down to earth, the people behind the scenes need that weakness even more. It’s hard to create tension around a character that can fly through the sun without getting a tan. Still, story-wise, all that green (and red, and gold) stuff lying around is a problem—given Superman’s resources and his importance in the DC universe, it seems inevitable that some kind of effort be made at a cleanup. Superman/Batman: The Search For Kryptonite (DC), a trade collecting Superman/Batman #44-49, deals with this effort, as the two heroes pool their efforts to rid the planet of Superman’s silver bullet. As always, the chemistry between Bruce Wayne and Kal-El is a lot of fun, but just as entertaining is the way writer Michael Green (with Mike Johnson) explores the consequences of their hunt, and the possible ramifications of creating a world where the ultimate boy scout has nothing left to hold him back. The action is well-paced and the banter convincing, and the final panel, inevitable though it may be, is a killer… A-

Justice League Of America: The Lightning Saga(DC) has a lot of heroes—two and a half teams’ worth, to be exact. There’s the JLA itself, with its usual heavy hitters; the more refined presence of the Justice Society Of America; and then there’s the Legion Of Super-heroes, a group of idealistic super-teens from the 31st century. It’s the Legion that gives Saga its hook—after discovering a so-called super-villain is actually Legionnaire Karate Kid, suffering from a brain scramble, the JLA and JSA set about tracking down the rest of the Legion members currently muddling their way through the DC-present. All those characters bashing together creates some decent sparks, and the script by Brad Meltzer and Geoff Johns does a decent job of keeping everyone straight. The Saga’s central mystery has a surprising, abrupt pay-off, but the collection’s best story is a one-off that follows the friendship of the JLA’s Big Three through all its ups and downs; it takes some knowledge of their history to keep up, but it’s still cool to see Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman squabbling like a bunch of college kids… B+

The initial issues of the ongoing Vertigo series Air, by Cairo collaborators G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker, were none too promising; their story of international terrorism, sexy secret agents, and secret societies was simultaneously too blunt and pat to bring its plot developments across smoothly, and too sprawling and ambitious to read well in small installments. The first trade collection, Air: Letters From Lost Countries, is a much better way to dive into the series; the choppy early bits blow by quickly, leaving room for a much larger and more bizarre story that touches on ancient gods, psychic powers, and unexpected hyper-tech, none of which was hinted at in the early going. By the end of issue #4, the series has gotten seriously weird, and by the end of this collection, it’s starting to seem like the whole thing is a joke, but a fairly exciting and diverse joke that just keeps getting better and more unpredictable. B+