Comics Panel: June 13, 2008

Comics Panel: June 13, 2008

While movie and TV producers scrambled in the early '90s to come up with projects that would capture the spirit—and the wallets—of Generation X, DC Comics was quietly publishing an offbeat superhero series that said more about the concerns and character of the age than a dozen iterations of Reality Bites. Written by James Robinson and drawn by Tony Harris, Starman followed the trend of next-generation superheroes that DC practically mandated in the '90s, though Robinson and Harris' hero Jack Knight came to the family business a little differently than the likes of the new Flash and the new Green Arrow. The son of Ted Knight, the Golden Age Starman, Jack was a nostalgia freak and the proprietor of a kitschy Opal City antique shop when his older brother David—with whom he'd squabbled all his life—was killed during one of his first missions as the new Starman. Forced by fate to pick up Starman's cosmic staff, Jack gradually grew into the role of Opal City's protector, and reconciled himself to his father's complicated legacy and his guilt over the death of a brother he never liked. Jack also had a series of cleverly structured, far-reaching adventures over the course of 80 issues (plus annuals, specials, and crossovers), ranging from mysteries that reached back to the dawn of the superhero age to missions that sent him into the farthest reaches of space and time. In the introduction to The Starman Omnibus: Volume One (a handsome hardback which contains the first 18 issues of the series), Robinson explains that he intended to create a character who would exemplify everything conflicted and cool about superheroes, then tie him directly to the genre's past and future. In re-reading the earliest Starman issues, it's impressive how much of the full scope of the project Robinson had in mind from the beginning. But even more impressive—and what'll make The Starman Omnibus resonate with newcomers—is how well Robinson and Harris articulated the character of Jack Knight, a slacker with idiosyncratic tastes and ideals that didn't originate in any corporate boardroom. This Starman had his costume—a leather jacket, a Cracker Jack sheriff's badge, and World War II anti-flare goggles—and he had his store of pop-culture trivia, which he'd often cycle through to calm his fears while battling the bad guys that his father's generation helped usher into the world. Jack Knight was a hero by and for the '90s: a decade dedicated to taking stock and looking forward… A

Billed as the third part of a trilogy following Crisis On Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis is DC's big nothing-will-ever-be-the-same summer crossover series. Steered by the all-star team of writer Grant Morrison and artist J.G. Jones, its first issue is long on bafflement and short on entertainment, flitting across time and space to cover eruptions of trouble throughout the DC universe. (Or is that multiverse?) With Morrison, who continues to do superlative work over in Batman and All Star Superman, it's usually best to trust that it will all make sense eventually, but apart from the death of a major character, the first issue doesn't really offer a lot of compelling reasons to press on. It's pretty and it could get better, however, so consider the grade subject to a continuity-shifting retcon in future months… C+

Anyone seeking to untangle the knots of continuity and references to past work should check out Douglas Wolk's excellent annotations site, much of which refers back to the brain-bending early-'70s DC work of Jack Kirby, particularly the creations covered in the excellent four-volume Jack Kirby's Fourth World hardbacks released earlier this year. Unrelated except in trippiness—though it looks like Morrison might try to stitch both Kirby creations together— Jack Kirby's O.M.A.C.: One Man Army Corp collects all eight issues of one of Kirby's strangest creations. Set in "the world that's coming," the series focuses on an ordinary schlub named Buddy Blank who's transformed by a benevolent satellite called Brother Eye into a pacifist super-soldier via "remote-controlled hormone surgery… from space!" Extrapolating the problems of the future from those plaguing 1974, Kirby pitted OMAC against artificial intelligence, the decadent super-rich, and, well, giant monsters. It's a Kirby comic, after all, and as unfiltered an example of his sensibility as ever made it to print… A

Hot on the heels of Final Crisis comes another sort of grand experiment, Trinity. Following the far-ranging 52 and Countdown To Final Crisis, this third foray into weekly comics tightens the focus to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The book's first half finds Kurt Busiek scripting pages drawn by Mark Bagley, this generation's definitive Spider-Man artist, marking his first major contributions to DC. When not falling victim to delays, Busiek's work on Superman has been a model of thoughtful, thematically rich, densely plotted superhero storytelling. While 12 pages might be a bit soon to judge, Trinity would seem to be headed in the same direction. If nothing else, Bagley's work provides simpatico accompaniment. The second half of the comic, co-written by Busiek and Nicieza and drawn by a rotating cast, seems to strive for Final Crisis levels of confusion. But as a package, it easily earns a… B+

Cartoonist Dash Shaw displays the kind of ambition that comics could use more of in his graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button†(Fantagraphics), a 720-page dissection of a dysfunctional family over one strained weekend at the beach. The family matriarch and patriarch are planning to divorce after 40 years of marriage, and they've invited their three grown children (plus their respective spouses and children) to their beach house for one last stretch of "together time." Except that the kids don't really understand their parents' decision, and they're so irritated about it that they choose to spend most of the trip by themselves, stewing over the bad romantic choices that they've each made in the recent past. Design-wise, Bottomless Belly Button†is frequently stunning, as Shaw conveys shared memories and states of mind in a few poignant, impressionistic panels. But whenever Shaw leaves impressionism behind and has his characters actually talk with each other, Bottomless Belly Button†reads as heavy as it weighs. Out of 720 pages, maybe 200 don't come off like a routine depiction of over-familiar melodrama. But that good 200 is a very†good 200, indicative of a talent likely to find a comfortable place one day where Shaw's ambition intersects with his abilities… B-

The release of the better-than-expected-but-still-merely-solid film The Incredible Hulk hasn't prompted the vaults-clearing reprint onslaught that greeted the Iron Man film, but deep-pocketed fans will want to pick up The Incredible Hulk Omnibus (Marvel), which collects 700-plus pages of the jade giant's earliest adventures. Scripted, of course, by Stan Lee, the stories change shape as the art duties shift from Jack Kirby's ugly behemoth to the openly neurotic pencil work of Steve Ditko to a rotating cast of luminaries that included Marie Severin, Gene Colan, and Gil Kane. They all helped tease out more science-fiction-inspired stories than the Jekyll-and-Hyde premise would initially suggest while still providing the gargantua-on-the-rampage action that's made the big guy so popular… A-

When DC's universe-shattering Crisis On Infinite Earths maxi-series wrapped in 1986, the publisher introduced heavily hyped revamps of some of its core heroes, while adding more modest new characters that unexpectedly became permanent fixtures of the DC mythology. Showcase Presents: Booster Gold (DC) offers the full two-year, 25-issue run of the original Booster Gold series, following the adventures of a sketchy superhero who traveled from the 25th century to the present and used futuristic technology and his pet robot's encyclopedic knowledge of the past to win fame and fortune. A labor of love for writer/artist Dan Jurgens, Booster Gold was more fully realized and fun than the average post-Silver Age superhero launch, with sleek storytelling and stylish design underlining Jurgens' examination of whether the heroic impulse and the mercenary impulse could comfortably coexist. Jurgens' brightest idea was to have Booster change just enough over the course of two years' worth of stories to become increasingly likeable, but not so much that he lost the gimmick that made him unique. Booster Gold stayed a ground-level, very human hero, as flawed and funny as any of his readers… B+

For a trip back to a more recent time, check out the Mark Millar-written, Tommy Lee Edwards-penciled 1985 (Marvel), a miniseries in which the events of the Marvel universe circa 1985 begin to seep into the contemporaneous real world, even if only one lonely kid seems to notice. 1985 began life as a photo-comic in the European fumetti tradition before getting revamped in a more traditional style. There's potential for more than mere nostalgia here, and Millar is the sort of writer who can get at it. Right now, it's all nifty premise and golden-hued returns to a past decade… B

The first issue of Chris Claremont's long-awaited GeNext (Marvel) puts more info about its X-Babies characters in the post-story "X-tra Features" section than in the story itself, which lets its characters off the awkward-exposition hook, but means the first issue is a little baffling and generic on the first read. It might be better to start at the back, then skip forward. The next generation of X-Men, featuring Rogue and Gambit's son Olivier, Storm's daughter Becka, Colossus' grandson Pavel, and two "mystery" kids, get through their debut story in oh-so-familiar Claremont style, half in the Danger Room proving that they aren't up to snuff physically or emotionally, half out in the world, working out their issues as individuals and a team. The connections to past famous characters (and to those characters' powers) is much of the interest this first time out; the X-angst of the kid who's afraid of her powers seems pretty generic, while the kid who wants to be a rocker instead of a hero… Well, it's all a fairly typical modern blend of classic Marvel and popular current anime-manga tropes. So, too. Patrick Scherberger and Norman Lee's bright, poppy art, which is begging for an instant transition to animation. But the first two issues are packed with potentially interesting story hooks that could really help the miniseries take off once it's past the awkward introduction stage and it fully finds its feet… B-

The second Buffy: Season Eighttrade, No Future For You(Dark Horse) takes the series into darker territory, as Brian K. Vaughan takes over writing duties for a story arc in which Giles assigns Faith the task of befriending, then killing, a British aristocrat who's gained Slayer powers, and is out to get Buffy. Vaughan doesn't hit the story notes as hard as Joss Whedon might, for good and bad—the story doesn't have the emotional gut-punches of a Whedon story, but it does pointedly, quietly underline how Giles is willing to use and abuse bad-girl Faith to protect good-girl Buffy, and how his expectations for them are shaped by the ways in which they've failed them. And it's a solid continuation of Faith's complicated story, as she tries to decide what the "right" thing to do is in a situation when she's asked to murderer a girl who's dangerous but still a friend, in order to protect someone she still doesn't much like… B

The miniseries Ultimate Origins (Marvel) finds Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Marvel's pretty-satisfying-so-far big crossover series Secret Invasion, offering the secret origin of a different, smaller universe. Anyone who's been reading titles in Marvel's Ultimate universe won't find any big shocks in this first issue, but the breezily dramatic Bendis style and Butch Guice's art makes it essential reading for preexisting fans… B

Fans of Ursula Vernon's offbeat comics series Digger should check out her first children's book, Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures Of A (Somewhat) Brave Shrew (Harcourt). The title doesn't quite tell it all—it leaves out the uniquely Vernon-esque bizarreries, like the talking- salmon tree—but it sums up most of the story, in which a determined but fearful shrew sets out downriver in a caulked snail shell to answer a vague distress call sent by mail. The story, spaced out with periodic (though never enough) black-and-white Vernon drawings, echoes The Wind In The Willows a bit in its playful tone and its sense of a larger animal world that in some ways is much like the human one, and in other ways is strictly bound to beastly instincts and fur, claws, and wings. Throughout, Nurk the shrew is informed and supported by the weirdo diary of a famous forebear, whose own whacko adventures underline Nurk's initially mundane troubles with wet socks and uncooperative tree branches. Vernon's appealingly strange muse still finds its best expression in her gorgeous color paintings rather than in her more cut-and-dried prose and monochromatic sketches, but Nurk remains an enjoyably loopy, brilliantly creative kids' book full of fun narrative surprises… B+

The latest Minx book, Rebecca Donner's Burnout, skews a little younger and simpler than some of the imprint's work—not that it's childish, or even about children, but its straightforward dialogue and simple characters seem designed to keep the more complicated ideas from being intimidating. When the teenage protagonist, Danni, relocates to an Oregon logging town with her mother after her father leaves, she winds up involved with a local boy who's spiking trees and sabotaging logging efforts. This on top of problems at home; her mom is working for, living with, and romantically involved with the abusive asshole who runs the local lodge. The way Danni veers back and forth between influences, leaning pro-sabotage and then pro-logging, depending on who's presented her with her latest reasoned argument, rings true-to-life for a girl her age, and lets Donner present two sides of the story. And the book's inconclusive, wide-open ending similarly avoids pat answers. But there's nothing particularly exceptional about the story or Inaki Miranda's manga-influenced art, and the character who seems most lively and interesting, Danni's rocker-chick best friend Vivian, drops out entirely halfway through. It's a competent book, just not particularly essential, and it whizzes by without making much impact… C+

Sometimes if we don't get to a book when it first comes out, it winds up in the catch-up-later pile and then lives there for an unfairly long time while newer material gets promoted ahead of it over and over. That happened with Alison Bechdel's stellar Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin), but even a year after its paperback release, it deserves mention as a fantastically poignant, solidly written and executed book. Bechdel's autobiographical story parallels her own self-discovery and coming-out as a lesbian with her father's secret homosexuality and the strain it put on her parents' marriage, but she weaves that throughline subtly through a series of sometimes humorous, sometimes horrible anecdotes about her family. Her chilly, inaccessible mortician father (the family's abbreviated references to his funeral home provides the book's title) made an obsession out of restoring and decorating the family home, ignoring his family's input even over how their own rooms would look; he seems to have put far less attention into family bonds, essentially treating them as another decorative accessory. But Bechdel finds the dark humor in stories like her one awkward attempt to kiss him goodnight, or the first time he called her into the morgue to hand him a tool, and she came face-to-corpse with an eviscerated, naked adult man. Bechdel's precise, neat black-and-white art, so familiar from her long-running Dykes To Watch Out For series, lends itself well to the crispness of these stories, which largely retain a sad but determined detachment, and feel like a form of therapy as well as sharing. She's never maudlin or looking for sympathy, she's just explaining how she became who she is, and how dad helped or hurt. A