Comics Panel, October 25, 2007

Comics Panel, October 25, 2007

Robert Kirkman is the comic world's zombie go-to guy—although his new The Astounding Wolf-Man has branched out into the lucrative field of lycanthropy—and The Walking Dead is the reason. The monthly zombie title remains one of the most, um, fleshed-out examinations of those undead critters in any media. Like his hero George Romero, Kirkman knows that zombie stories aren't really about zombies at all; they're about the people who have to fight them, and the type of civilization that would give birth to such monsters in all their shambling, symbolic glory. Too bad things have continued taking a downturn with The Walking Dead: The Calm Before (Image), the series' seventh collection. As the title suggests, Kirkman's band of survivors of the zombie holocaust—holed up in a Georgia prison and continuing to drop like flies—have taken a much-needed breather after the jarring torture-porn and pummeling grimness of recent episodes. But where the characters previously reached toward some kind of moral equilibrium or revelation, now they're just spinning their wheels. There are still plenty of shining moments: The birth of the colony's first child dovetails with its first harvest, and the gore even slackens for a bit, even though Kirkman continues to indulge his questionable amputation fetish. But the splash-page cliffhanger nearly derails the whole thing, as Kirkman tries to juggle carefully spun human drama with cartoonish, Mad Max-style post-apocalyptica. Artist Charlie Adlard—who summons Dave Gibbons' immaculate draftsmanship and keen layouts without ever dipping into imitation—still brings the goods graphically, but Kirkman's pacing has slowed to a gelatinous crawl, and so many of the big questions he's brought up about the nature of man and society have started stripping their gears. And four years into the series, Kirkman should know better than to put stilted lines like "There's no guide to behavior in this situation. Everything is unknown…" into the mouth of a small-town cop. Still, The Walking Dead retains its potential as one of the greatest zombie epics ever—assuming Kirkman can jump the series out of its rut with the next book… B

Early on in The Walking Dead, the "let's disguise ourselves as zombies to get past the zombies" shtick gets dug up. And while it works to great comedic effect in Shaun Of The Dead, it isn't so funny in Living With The Dead. The miniseries' first issue is a lightweight story of two buddies who don't seemed fazed at all by the zombie-pocalypse; in fact, it's a great opportunity for one of them to sharpen his Method acting by putting on a mask, grumbling "brains," and pretending to be one of the afflicted. Given the run of the city, the duo caves in undead heads and rocks out in their practice space. However, like SOTD, Living With The Dead is that refreshing rarity: a zombie story in which the characters are actually aware of zombie movies. And artist Ben Stenbeck has a knack for drawing cute li'l brain-eaters, though Mike Richardson's premise could have used a little more muscle. Dark Horse's other Halloween treat, The Deadlander, is a four-part series that's a bit meatier. Written and drawn by Kevin Ferrara—whose mimicry of fright-meister Bernie Wrightson is as shameless as it is stunning—pays homage to the lush yet gritty horror and Western comics of the '70s. Highly stylized and just a tad tongue-in-cheek, its tale of a cadaverous cowboy in search of vengeance is stringy and dry; luckily, Ferrara's art makes its own gravy… Both: B-

Will Eisner's weekly series The Spirit revolutionized comics storytelling in the '40s and '50s, pretty much ensuring that revivals by anyone but Eisner, who died in 2005, would look like a pale imitation. Well, almost anyone. Writer-artist Darwyn Cooke (The New Frontier) offers his own reverent-but-distinctive take on the masked crime-fighter in a new Spirit series; the first six issues and a one-shot Batman team-up are collected in The Spirit, Volume 1 (DC). Cooke's take is equally inspired by animation and film noir, and like Eisner, he uses each issue to deliver a story in a different tone than the one before. Sadly, this represents half of what will be Cooke's total output, as he's leaving the series with issue 12. But it still gets an… A-

Norway's mononymic cartoonist Jason draws in an ultra-simple, crisp, geometric style that somewhat resembles Chris Onstad's work on Achewood; at times, his anthropomorphic-animal characters are so minimalist that it's hard to tell them apart. But his plotting is as tight and spare as his art, as he proves to good effect in I Killed Adolf Hitler (Fantagraphics). Set in a world where assassination is affordable, legal, and seemingly one of the few thriving industries, it begins with a series of casual contract killings that take an odd turn when someone offers the protagonist a time machine and hires him to murder Hitler. Naturally, the scheme goes awry, but in unexpected ways that wind down the action to deceptively sleepy levels before the story ends with a bang. Virtually every detail of the spare art can be absorbed on a first casual read-through, but the story is so smart and subtle that it begs for an instant replay… A-

After the breakneck drama of Drawn & Quarterly's second Gasoline Alley collection—which saw the orphan Skeezix kidnapped by the mysterious Mme. Octave, and his adoptive father Walt engaging in a cross-country race—Walt & Skeezix: 1925 & 1926 slows back down to the rhythm of day-to-day life, playing to the real strengths of creator Frank King. The strip's biggest development in the mid-'20s involved Walt's long-delayed engagement to Phyllis Blossom, and the wedding that followed. Once Walt finally musters the courage to propose, Gasoline Alley becomes about the many sweet, awkward ways a confirmed bachelor tries to express affection. (Walt: "Phyllis, I like you awfully well." Phyllis: "I'm glad Walt, because I've heard you say as much for french-fried potatoes.") King also begins to experiment more with his art, working with silhouettes, shadows, and close-ups as his characters gradually begin to outgrow the dusty alley garages that used to be the strip's reason for being. Also available now, for the more hardcore fan: Sunday Press' Sundays With Walt And Skeezix, which collects nearly 200 Gasoline Alley Sunday strips at full 16"-by-21" newspaper-page size. As with the D&Q series, Chris Ware's design of the Sundays package presents King's work sensitively and stylishly. But the work itself is the real attraction, especially on the many Sundays when King would have Walt and Skeezix take a walk or a drive through a colorful, magical everyday world. It's hard to call any $100 book a must-own, but it's sure hard to imagine a happy life without Sundays With Walt And SkeezixBoth: A

Drawn & Quarterly resumes another of its welcome archival projects with Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Volume Two. Jansson's near-stream-of-consciousness adventures involving various single-minded woodland creatures is pitched to a narrower sensibility—those with a yen for the outrageously fanciful, basically—but the precisely designed, kid-friendly art is marvelous, and the extended storylines have a steady rhythm that becomes pleasantly lulling the more they're read. This book is perfect for perusing right before bedtime, to ensure unusual dreams… B+

Reviving Tales From The Crypt has always been a tricky proposition. Update the concept too much, and it's just another horror anthology, but slavishly copy the original's style, and it's an irrelevant exercise. Tales From The Crypt #1: Ghouls Gone Wild! (Papercutz) is the first entry in a new digest-sized "graphic novel" series, and its writers and artists try to split the difference between homage and innovation, borrowing the basic "gotcha" structure of EC Comics' stories, but with more modern art and subject matter. The problem is that while the legendary EC artists could dispatch a relatively complex story in six to eight pages, this new lot takes almost twice the space, and uses the extra pages to add static images and glib, faux-natural dialogue of the Brian Michael Bendis variety. Some of the art here is stunning—particularly Sho Murase and Carlos Jose Guzman's stylized figures in the fashion-themed "Runway Roadkill!"—but the stories are paper-thin, with none of the psychological squishiness that made EC great… C-

Green Arrow/Black Canary: For Better Or For Worse (DC) collects stories involving two superhero lovebirds from 1969 to the present. These disjointed chapters don't exactly amount to a fluid romantic saga, largely because the pre-1985 stories treat the heroes' personal lives as a mere fact of their existence, no more worth exploring than the costumes they wear. And the decision to excerpt and string together a few relevant pages from recent stories makes for some choppy reading toward the end of the book. But because Green Arrow and Black Canary are the two holdovers from DC's Golden Age who were most interestingly revamped for the Silver Age—though they remained underused at the time—nearly any attempt to showcase them is welcome… B

Chronologically and historically speaking, it made sense for Dark Horse to begin its "Harvey Comics Classics" series with Casper The Friendly Ghost, but for pure entertainment value, the series really takes off with its second volume, Richie Rich: The Poor Little Rich Boy. The concept of an impossibly nice kid with more money than God's loaded uncle remains a winning fantasy for children and adults alike, but over the course of 125 stories and 475 pages, what stands out is how well-crafted some of Richie Rich's longer adventures are. They aren't quite at the level of Carl Barks' duck tales, but the clean-lined art and wildly twisty plots are in some ways even easier to read. This is a collection that's long overdue, and it's a relief that Dark Horse is doing these Harvey Comics books right… A-

In spite of new forays into superhero iconoclasm (The Boys) and Western drama (his promising new Streets Of Glory), Garth Ennis just can't let go of the Bible-bashing. His recent miniseries Chronicles Of Wormwood (Avatar) just hit trade format, and it cranks up the blasphemy of Ennis' Preacher a few dozen decibels: Danny Wormwood is a television magnate, philanthropist, and adulterer (oh, and the Antichrist) whose father Satan is intent on jumpstarting Armageddon and ushering in his reign on Earth. Wormwood, though, wants nothing to do with the family business; after centuries as a semi-mortal, he's reached a libertarian, love-hate view of the human race, and wants nothing more than for God and the devil to withdraw from mankind's affairs. The underlying tone is redemptive, even sweet, but Ennis piles on his usual shock tactics: Wormwood's drinking buddy is a brain-damaged Jesus, the pope is nipple-pierced and orgiastic, and—in a stroke of sublime sacrilege—God himself is a chronically masturbating halfwit. The gross-outs pile up quickly, but Ennis knows how to compress his philosophizing into a remarkably breezy, witty story. Plus, Wormwood affirms a couple of cosmic truths we've all long suspected: The road to hell is paved, not with good intentions, but with the bodies of mimes, and Bill Hicks opens for Hendrix in heaven… B+

 

In his introduction to Picturebox Inc.'s new, deluxe reissue of Frank Santoro's Storeyville, celebrity fan Chris Ware makes mention of the book's "urgency of an emotional memory." Such latency is Storeyville's life's blood. Santoro originally self-published the graphic novel in 1995—sanguine, autumnal washes on muted newsprint—and its tale of a turn-of-the-century drifter undertaking an odyssey across Canada glows like a lost classic of American literature. Santoro's loose, wiry lines jab and flow, and his ability to conduct readers through his pages is masterful: He scribbles when he wants the eyes to fly by, then loads panels with planar density and blurry afterimages when it's time to linger and digest. But his concept and craft never get in the way of the narrative, a gradual occlusion of warm vignettes and easy wisdom that erupt into a quiet revelation. The lavish production of Picturebox's oversized hardcover should help cement Santoro's stature as a master, but in the end, Storeyville's raw substance and unkempt humanity renders it a classic… A

It's hard to read Joe Flood's Don't Eat The Electric Sheep (Knee Deep) without picturing the Heroes character Isaac Mendez—the isolated artist holed up in a New York City studio, drawing his prophetic comics. Flood similarly works and publishes Sheep from his Brooklyn apartment, but instead of prognostication, the comic is filled with silly science fiction involving hallucinogens, a sinister entity known as the Shiny Metal Android Company, a psycho in a duck mask named Bill The Duck, and the lead character, Myles, an endearing, institutionalized doofus who's been unwittingly cyberized. The title's fifth issue continues its unapologetic riff on Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?" but the fluffy story pales before Flood's fantastically gawky, hyper artwork… B-

Following in the hubristic footsteps of Grindhouse, Dean Haspiel and Michel Fiffe have unleashed Brawl (Image), a "creature romance double feature" introducing two separate storylines. Fiffe's "Panorama" is a curiosity—a delicately grotesque fever-dream involving morphing flesh, scatology, and a dash of teen violence and romance—but Haspiel's "Billy Dogma" is the main attraction. Tipping back a full tank of Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, Haspiel chisels out a thick-lined yet nightmarishly abstract thriller starring a hard-boiled thug who blows heart-shaped holes in walls and battles a subterranean monster with a gutful of hieroglyphics. It reads more like a clipped, disjointed collage of noir dialogue and surreal science fiction rather than a cohesive whole, but the result hangs together beautifully. As intriguing (though inconsistent) as Brawl is, here's hoping it'll take another cue from Grindhouse and get split into separate releases next time around: "Billy Dogma" definitely warrants a full-length book in which to breathe and grow… B

Dark Horse continues its line of big, sleek collections of its media tie-in comics with Predator Omnibus: Volume 1, a hefty 400-page anthology that brings the eponymous aliens to Earth to hunt humans in modern-day New York City, Tokyo, and Siberia, as well as World War I France and various jungle and veldt locales. While the art in this book tends to be drawn in dense, slightly crude classic-war-comic style, then colored crudely by today's standards, often in generic washes with no detail, the stories by the likes of Mark Verheiden, Ian Edginton, Chuck Dixon and Neil Barrett, jr. are excellent. There's a lot of two-fisted, grunting war-movie action, centering in particular on a super-cynical, ass-kicking New York City cop, the brother to Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in the first film. There are a lot of war-comic broads, who are presented as nail-tough, but always seem to wind up sprawled out in porn poses, or otherwise cheesecaked up. But mostly, there's a great deal of time-and-place detail and you-are-there veracity that keeps these stories from being redundant. The plotting is surprisingly complicated and dense, and all the government intrigue keeps things much busier and smarter than an action-movie spin-off about killer aliens from space has any right to be… B+

Dark Horse's Buffy Omnibus: Volume 2 doesn't fare as well, but it's better than the first volume. The initial storyline is choppy, rushed, and confusing in spite of its length, but subsequent stories actually read like lost Buffy episodes. Still not essential except for the hardcoriest of Buffy fans, but often fun nonetheless. B-

 

More Comics Panel