Comics Panel: January 9, 2009

Comics Panel: January 9, 2009

 

When editor Sammy Harkham and publisher Buenaventura Press announced that the seventh issue of the influential art-comics anthology Kramers Ergot would be 16" x 21," 98 pages long, and $125 (discounted to $78.75 on Amazon), reactions in the comics community ranged from perplexed to outright hostile. But give Harkham credit: he's made the publication of Kramers Ergot #7 (Buenaventura) into an honest-to-goodness event, stealing some thunder from superhero crossovers, celebrity writers, and movie tie-ins. Is KE7 worth the extra dough? Most of the time, absolutely. In the past, Kramers Ergot has been one of those anthologies that seems to favor willful obscurity, and there are still some artists in KE7 who fill their enormous pages with rough scribbling, like some kind of sophomore-year-at-art-school nightmare. Even the more narrative-driven artists don't always manage their extra space well, and instead use simple, boxy panels to tell in one large page a story that could've worked just as well in four regular-sized ones. But Harkham has assembled an A-team of indie-comics talent—including Daniel Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Kevin Huizenga, Ben Katchor, Richard Sala, Ivan Brunetti, Matt Groening, Kim Deitch and Carol Tyler—which means that even the this-didn't-need-to-be-so-big stories are artful and engaging. And when the best artists take advantage of the larger format, the results are often stunning. Chris Ware's two-pager offers one of his most moving vignettes, returning to the one-legged heroine of Building Stories and considering her middle-aged life with a rare sense of hope. Seth too scores with what amounts to a 26-page story (about Canadian designer Thoreau MacDonald) laid out beautifully across two massive pages. And lesser-known Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld (who was responsible for the charming Hunter And Painter mini-comic a few years back) spreads a deadpan re-imagining of the Noah's Ark story across four KE7 pages, contrasting the immensity of God's vision with the pettiness of man's reaction. It's a funny, beautiful, awe-inspiring strip. And yes, it did need to be so big… A-

It's an old story: ex-con, shoehorned into the straight life, can't handle the impotent banality of the day-to-day and faces a losing battle against the temptation to return to his former evil ways. Only in the case of Incognito (Icon), substitute "supervillain" for "ex-con," and "the drugs he takes to suppress his superpowers" for "impotent banality." After that, things get complicated. Riffing on some of the themes of Criminal and Sleeper, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Philip put a pulp-hero twist on the crime-noir form they do so well, following the misadventures of Zack Overkill, a former bad guy forced into office drudgery by the witness-protection program. In the first issue (of a projected five), Zack is already on the edge; after a secret tryst with a co-worker, he winds up back in the world of heroes and villains, only this time playing for the good guys almost by accident. It's nothing hugely new, and some of the "adult" dialogue comes off more goofy than gritty, but this one's a keeper; the nested flashback structure pulls readers in with every pass, and Zack himself makes a convincingly nasty anti-hero. Part one ends on a moderate cliffhanger, but the real interest here is the way the former bad guy only finds himself when he starts pretending to be someone he isn't; Brubaker excels at this kind of psychological depth, and it promises all kinds of darkness on the road ahead… A

The reaction to just about any new comic written by Kurt Busiek has to be tempered by the understanding that every page he cranks out for DC or Marvel is a page he isn't contributing to his most creatively valuable property, Astro City. That said, Busiek always turns in solid work when wearing his journeyman hat, and in the case of Marvels: Eye Of The Camera (Marvel), he's at least returning to a project he helped originate. The first run of Marvels back in 1994 followed newspaper photographer Phil Sheldon as he recalled his reaction, and the world's, to the dawn of the superhero age. The Marvels miniseries—co-created with artist Alex Ross—took a human-scaled look back at memorable moments in the history of the Marvel Universe, and reminded readers of the sense of wonder that drew them to superhero comics in the first place. Though Sheldon returns as the narrator/protagonist of the six-part Eye Of The Camera, Busiek and his new artist, Jay Anacleto, don't strictly repeat the formula that made Marvels a success. Judging by the miniseries' first issue, Busiek plans to contrast Sheldon's reaction to the proliferation of super-powered beings with a growing awareness of his own mortality. Given Busiek's own health problems over the years, Eye Of The Camera looks to be a deeply personal project about the real meaning of heroes to someone facing a life-threatening disease. It isn't a new Astro City, but this new Marvels may end up being every bit as resonant… B+

It also isn't Astro City deep, but the new Image superhero series I Hate Gallant Girl (plotted by "chief imagination officer" Jim Valentino, written by Kat Cahill) is a lot of fun; the mix of light superhero satire and actual character-driven story closely recalls Robert Kirkman's Invincible, and the series in fact feels like it was written specifically as an Invincible sidebar. (It was actually written for Shadowline's "Who Wants To Create A Superheroine" contest, where it was a runner-up.) The story follows a driven, talented wannabe superhero who tries out to join the Fellowship Of Freedom as the latest in a series of PR-friendly model-types all known as Gallant Girl. She doesn't get the role because she isn't as blonde and busty as the no-talent who does get the part, so by way of revenge, she takes up with a mentor and strikes out on her own. There's a mild grrrl-power theme about people living up to their own expectations and abilities, and a similarly mild strain of superhero satire at work—this title would have worked nicely as part of DC's defunct Minx line—but the behind-the-scenes look at superhero politics and who-watches-the-watchmen problems is a stronger and more interesting theme. The art isn't always the greatest—Seth Damoose has the inconsistency and intermittent laziness of a webcomic artist still finding his feet—but the first few issues are compelling enough to prompt hopes that the series continues its uphill trend… B

John Byrne's work as writer and artist over the past decade has been spotty at best, but he's done well whenever he's been allowed to bounce around in time and treat heroic fiction with a sense of play. Byrne's three Generations miniseries for DC represented some of the most entertaining comics he's ever been involved with (as well as some of the most fun Superman and Batman stories of recent vintage), and that same spirit lives on in Star Trek - Assignment: Earth (IDW), a trade paperback collecting Byrne's five-part journey into the Trek-verse. Based on a second-season Star Trek episode that Gene Roddenberry intended as the pilot for a new series, Assignment: Earth features galactic guardian Gary Seven and his flighty protégée Roberta Lincoln thwarting covert schemes too complicated for ordinary Earthly law enforcement to handle. Each issue of Assignment: Earth takes place one year after the previous one (from 1968 to 1972), and each tells a fast-paced, stand-alone story rendered in rough-but-energetic art. There's nothing brilliant or revelatory here, but whether Gary and Roberta are exposing Richard Nixon impersonators or shutting down clone-farms, Assignment: Earth is consistently diverting… B

Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy movies represent one of the best marriages of director and source material imaginable, but while Del Toro does a terrific job of capturing Mike Mignola's eclecticism and humor, he's never quite gotten the series' morbid sadness. The best Hellboy stories read like a joke told at a wake, where absurdity doesn't explain death so much as excuse it. A large part of that is the art; Mignola is a talented writer, but his visual style, with its stark angles and old-world clutter, haunts in a way that goes beyond words. Mignola isn't on art duty for Hellboy: The Wild Hunt (Dark Horse), but Duncan Fegredo's work follows the same Baroque path. The script is the usual mixture of the outlandish and the elegiac, but Mignola's sense of pacing is a little rough; too many references to earlier adventures give the first issue a disjointed, stop-and-go feel. Still, once the story gets started it catches quickly, with Hellboy enlisted to track down a mob of giants roaming the countryside, while past foes work behind the scenes to uncertain ends. By the second issue (of an eight-issue series), things have settled in nicely; hard to know where it's all headed, but that's part of the fun… A-

Like Jigsaw from the Saw movies minus the impish sense of whimsy, the Punisher is the sort of character who's easy to understand but difficult to write well. In some ways, Garth Ennis makes a perfect match for the Punisher; from the start, his treatment of the erstwhile Frank Castle transformed a Charles Bronson wannabe into the only straight man in a world full of disposable, gun-toting stooges. Unfortunately, while Ennis is great on sprints, he tends to get fuzzy on long runs, and after a decade off-and-on with the character, he doesn't have a lot left to say. Marvel's Punisher War Zone: The Return Of Ma Gnucci (no relation to the recent movie) has Ennis reuniting with artist Steve Dillon for a six-issue series, and the result is about as expected, with Frank investigating the apparent return of a mob boss he's killed more than once. There's the usual mash-up of mafia thugs, losers, and ineffective policing, including the return of some familiar faces from Ennis and Dillon's first Punisher arc, "Welcome Back, Frank." But even without the reruns, the story seems routine. There's nothing wrong with gory slapstick, ultra-violence, and limbless women in wheelchairs getting blown up, but does it have to be this boring? C+

One of the most important artists of the Silver Age of comics, Neal Adams is finally getting his due with a deluxe trio of handsome hardcovers. DC Universe Illustrated By Neal Adams Vol. 1 (DC) is the first of the series, which aims to collect pretty much everything Adams did outside of his three most popular superhero titles, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Batman, and Deadman. An early pioneer of the "realistic anatomy" movement spearheaded by Steve Rude in the 1980s, and a master of clever layouts and dynamic-yet-subtle action scenes, Adams' main innovation—and, sadly, the one that's carried over the least amongst his heirs—was his tremendous gift at drawing faces. At a time when even some of the legends of the Silver Age were drawing characters that were hard to tell apart when they weren't in costume, Adams drew faces that were immediately distinguishable, memorable, and possessed of a shocking degree of emotional expression. Among the highlights in this volume are some excellent early issues of Teen Titans and some of his top-notch World War II art from Star Spangled War Stories and Weird War Tales. This one's pricey, but provides a lovely showcase for those who recognize Adams' talents… A-

The Daredevil By Frank Miller series (Marvel) assembles the work that first propelled Miller into the mainstream spotlight—complete with Sin City-esque cover graphics—and while his Batman: The Dark Knight Returns gets all the attention these days, his DD work was superior in a lot of ways. Being forced to work within mainstream continuity instead of outside it reined in his excessive tendencies, and focused him tremendously. This collection picks up with Daredevil #185, soon after Elektra's death, and it finds Daredevil wracked with a far more realistic and palpable grief than the comics of its era normally featured; Miller's Daredevil is, frankly, a mess, and these stories put him through the grinder in a way that's merciless but never arbitrary. It also gets deeper into Miller's expanded origin of the character, and sees him working with some great talents of the day, including further collaboration with Klaus Janson and a real treat in the form of a brief team-up with Bill Sienkiewicz. Some great storytelling, adventurous design, and a few really funny moments make this a must for anyone who hasn't read these stories before. It was doubtless planned as a cash-in on the popularity of Frank Miller's film work—or at least the popularity he seemed to be enjoying before everyone got wind of what a load his movie The Spirit was—but the collection is welcome nonetheless… A-

Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans were thrilled when Joss Whedon announced that he'd be continuing the series in comic-book form. It's hard to see why, since TV season 7 wasn't much to write home about, but the medium of comics affords big-screen storytelling on less than a small-screen budget, so the possibilities were definitely there. So far, it's been a mixed bag, and surprisingly (or not, depending on how you view The Great God Joss) the most enjoyable story arcs so far have been the ones he didn't write. Brian K. Vaughn's Faith arc last year blew most of Whedon's Buffy stories away, and now, starting with Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8 #21 (Dark Horse), he brings in series pro Jane Espenson to kick off the latest arc, featuring Sunnydale cheerleader Harmony in a world where the Slayer/vamp script is flipped. Whedon plotted the arc, but he's bringing in five of the TV show's writers to do the actual stories, and Espenson's kick-off is pretty enjoyable for those who enjoyed her recognizable storytelling tics on the show. At the least, she's shaking up a series that was starting to flag… B

Speaking of Whedon, Gail Simone is one of the few contemporary comics writers who's managed to capture his very particular voice and perspective and translate it to the superhero medium. Her Villains United miniseries built around the Secret Six was a hoot, veering wildly between low melodrama and high comedy, and now that she's been handed a regular series in which to do the same, she's running wild with it. Secret Six (DC) finds her paired with artist Nicola Scott, whose broad expressions don't impress at first glance, but which seem increasingly appropriate to Simone's grandly absurd style. The current story arc is a typical run-the-gauntlet adventure, but highly improved by Simone's hoot-inspiring arch dialogue and a unique McGuffin in the form of a "Get Out Of Hell Free" card coveted by the equally unique villain Junior, one of Simone's most absurd—and enjoyable—creations… B

It isn't entirely clear what French artist Appollo contributed to his collaboration with Lewis Trondheim for the First Second graphic novel Bourbon Island 1730; the entire thing is recognizably Trondheim, from the wandering, many-threaded tale to the rumpled anthro-animal characters to the characterizations, mostly split between hapless-but-driven and knowing-and-laconic. In part, the story is based on a legend about a pirate freehold at the beginning of the colonial era; a young assistant ornithologist with romantic fantasies of becoming a pirate finds out that piracy is more complicated and not nearly as romantic-sounding as it seems. While not as colorful as Trondheim's Dungeon work (literally as well as figuratively, since Bourbon Island is in black and white) or as dryly funny as his diary strips, it's a big, solid chunk of character-driven musing, with low-key excitement on all sides, and a sense of nostalgia both for a bygone way of life, and for the naïve, romantic notions about it… B

As Zack Snyder's film adaptation slouches toward theaters, a batch of Watchmen reprints has hit stores, with new paperback editions and single-issue reprints filling shelves for anyone curious about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal masterwork. For those already familiar with the original, Watching The Watchmen (Titan) provides a pleasant (though pricey) alternative. The oversized volume collects a ton of unpublished Gibbons art, including pre-production sketches and storyboards, as well as promotional material by other artists and a brief commentary by colorist John Higgins. Gibbons himself contributes a short but enjoyable history of the comic, from his first meeting with Alan Moore to their working process to the series' ultimate success and influence. Those looking for in-depth commentary should look elsewhere; Gibbons and Higgins' writing combined takes up less than 50 pages, and the book's design (by Chip Kidd and Mike Essl) is more about visual panache than archiving. Still, it's hard to argue with something that looks this cool. B+