Comics Panel, September 13, 2007

Comics Panel, September 13, 2007

Any thumbnail bio of 50 Cent mentions the bullets he's taken, but Percy Carey, a.k.a. M.F. Grimm, still has a bullet in him. In 1994, Grimm found his then-budding recording career sidelined after a shooting left him confined to a wheelchair. In the new graphic-novel autobiography Sentences: The Life Of M.F. Grimm (Vertigo), he blames a record label that didn't know how to market a rapper with such a violent background. "Nowadays, being shot is some kind of fucked-up prerequisite to be an emcee," Carey writes. He isn't really bitter, though. Like everything else in Sentences, this setback is communicated with a frank matter-of-factness that nicely matches Ronald Wimberly's subtly exaggerated, graffiti-inspired art. Carey's tale of rhyming and dealing is a bit shapeless, but it benefits from his direct storytelling and the jolt of his transition from cutting an album with MF Doom to dragging himself down a stairway in his elevator-free apartment building to meet a parole officer… B

The average-guy-gets-superpowers premise has been beaten into pulp over the decades. Still, there's something endearingly fresh about the debut of Super (Aberrant). In Issue 1, writer Justin Newberry and artist Gilbert Cuevas introduce Jeffrey, a Tool-listening, bong-loving, 20-year-old loner who works in a Houston coffee shop and dreams of the good life: a cute girlfriend, a nice car, and a mom who doesn't smother him. Running late for work, he gets mauled by a school bus and miraculously lives—leaving the stereotypical slacker with a life-changing (and potentially earth-shaking) mystery to solve. The skimpy story scans like a Heroes subplot, but Newberry does a decent job teasing of teasing readers by framing the main story in an off-panel talk-show interview with Jeffrey, ostensibly after he becomes a celebrity superhero. The hinted friction between his pre-accident reality and his post-accident fame points to some interesting character evolution in the future, and Cuevas' clear, expressive art nails Jeffrey's perpetual hangdog befuddlement… B-

J. Michael Straczynski began his stint on Amazing Spider-Man in 2001 with a ballsy, though ultimately kind of silly, rethinking of his hero's origins. Now he appears to be ending his stint with his finger on the reset button. Amazing Spider-Man #544(Marvel) kicks off the four-part "One More Day" storyline, which promises to (yawn) change Spidey's life forever. Looks like it just might, however. Marvel chief Joe Quesada, who provides the art, has grumbled loudly that he finds a married Peter Parker kind of dull, and with Parker recently outed as Spider-Man, the character seems to have been painted into yet another corner. A magical cop-out would appear to be on the way. Sadly, for all the heightened emotions of Quesada's art, this mostly seems like a way to get from point A to point B… C+

Writer-artist Durwin S. Talon has some serious credentials: He teaches college-level sequential art and even interviewed greats like Will Eisner and David Mazzucchelli in his 2000 book Panel Discussions: Design In Sequential Art Storytelling. The key word here is "design": Talon's own painted artwork is glossy and angular in a Brian Stelfreeze-meets-Patrick Nagel kinda way, and it serves the first issue of his new miniseries, Bonds (Image), poorly. Basically a parade of pinups trailing inconsequential word balloons, Talon's panels are gorgeous and bloodless, and they appear to be coated in a thin layer of translucent slime. There's a story in Bonds somewhere—something about a concert cellist with magic powers whose father becomes a victim of industrial espionage—but it has all the pathos and momentum of a textbook… C-

Industrial espionage of a much more compelling kind can be found in the first six issues of The Immortal Iron Fist (Marvel), which have been collected in a hardcover subtitled The Last Iron Fist Story. After filling in for Daredevil and joining the underground New Avengers, Danny Rand—a billionaire who moonlights as the mystical kung-fu champion Iron Fist—fends off a corporate takeover from the terrorist cabal HYDRA. The plot is far from original, but writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction boil dialogue and characterization down to economic essence, even as they inject enough human quietude and bone-dry humor to augment the mood exactly when needed. (For instance, Rand's scenes with his former Heroes For Hire partner Luke Cage are the stuff of subtle greatness.) Like Matt Wagner's archetypal Grendel, Iron Fist is a title passed from incarnation to incarnation, and Brubaker and Fraction cleverly use frequent flashbacks—courtesy of veteran guest artists like Russ Heath, John Severin, and Sal Buscema—to spin tales of the Iron Fists of antiquity. As tight as the script is, though, newcomer David Aja overshadows Iron Fist with his dynamic, gritty visuals; luckily, he bends his massive talent toward storytelling, and never comes unhinged from the swift narrative. The series, however, has slowed a bit lately: Issue #7 is an intermission of sorts, a full-length flashback to a Medieval Chinese Iron Fist introduced in Issue #2, and the new arc launched in Issue #8 threatens to turn The Immortal Iron Fist into Mortal Kombat. Still, the sheer grandeur and artistry of Aja's fight scenes are enough to carry the book—just in the off-chance Brubaker and Fraction continue to slip… A-

Minx's comics-for-girls line (and Mike Carey's 50-projects-at-once streak) continues with Confessions Of A Blabbermouth, a lengthy but lightweight book about an angry, high-strung blogger dealing with her mom's new boyfriend and the boyfriend's tense teenage daughter. Artist Aaron Alexovich was a character designer on Invader Zim, which explains why so many of the spiky-haired, wide-eyed, cartoony characters look familiar; his art gives the series a wild, wacky vibe that the more prosaic story doesn't necessarily deserve. Co-scripted by Carey (Lucifer, Crossing Midnight, Faker) and his teenage daughter, the book feels kind of self-absorbed and histrionic, mostly because its main character is so hyperactive, belligerent, and full of herself. That just gives the story an authentic teen vibe, which will probably endear it to its target audience, but for older readers, it isn't as smart, as layered, or as personable as Carey Sr.'s other Minx book, Re-GiftersB-

Rambo creator David Morrell makes a stab at relevancy with his new six-part miniseries Captain America: The Chosen (Marvel). In the first issue, a thinly characterized heroic soldier fighting in Afghanistan imagines Captain America helping him out in the battlefield. Or does he? More to the point, why should we care? Our current conflicts deserve stories that get beyond the superficial praise of heroism and sacrifice. This isn't one, yet, and it seems unlikely to turn into one in the future. Mitch Breitweiser's moody, middle-of-the-sandstorm art is nice, however… C-

Nick Abadzis' Laika (First Second) is the rare graphic novel that begs to be read like a prose novel—in multiple sittings, with pauses for absorption. His crumpled but precise art (vaguely reminiscent of Lewis Trondheim's in its ultra-cartoony density) sometimes crams more than a dozen tiny panels on a page, and his episodic story comes in arcs, showing how the Soviet space program began, and tracing a line from a leader's release from a freezing gulag to a puppy's tragic home life to the development of Sputnik and Sputnik 2. Eventually, the story becomes more about Yelena, a lab technician entrusted with the care of the space-program dogs, and the way her duty to her country conflicts with her duty to the animals she loves. Laika isn't particularly focused, thematically or tonally, but it's expansive and full of telling details and vividly realized characters who excite deep sympathy, dogs and humans alike… B+

In the wake of the success of The Da Vinci Code, it's no surprise that Arvid Nelson's Rex Mundi was recently optioned for the Hollywood treatment: Johnny Depp himself bought the rights, and intends to star in the picture. While the book isn't as good as Alan Moore's From Hell, the last comic that was turned into a Depp flick, Rex Mundi is likewise a rich, mystical alternate history of Europe. Instead of Victorian England, though, Rex Mundi is set on the continent in the 1930s, where the aftermath of World War I as we know it has dovetailed with a power play involving the Holy Grail. Even those sick to the eyeteeth of Grail-ology will find plenty to love in Nelson's book: Since moving to Dark Horse from Image last year, Rex Mundi has gotten even more complex and sinister as Grail-hunter Julien Saunière dives deeper into shadowy enigmas and his own human frailties. The recent Issue #7 is a great point to jump aboard: Nelson catches readers up quickly while embarking on a new arc that sees Europe descending further into a war caused by church politics and Grail-lust rather than Nazi invasions. As with his new Zero Killer, Nelson—a first-class world-builder—appends each issue of Rex Mundi with fictional, informative newspaper pages, allowing him to keep in-story exposition to a brisk minimum… B+

The legends of the Holy Grail and the Knights Templar are inseparable—but Bryan J.L. Glass veered from tradition with the anthropomorphic The Mice Templar (Image). Oddly, it's the second mouse-powered fantasy comic released in recent weeks: David Petersen's Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 (Archaia) picks up where the Fall 1152 miniseries left off earlier this year. Both titles have their strengths, but Templar easily wins out. The thick, 56-page debut is a labor of love for Glass, who appears to be channeling Raymond E. Feist, whose beloved novel Magician: Apprentice Glass has been adapting for Marvel. Like Feist's book, Templar focuses on a humble boy with a great and emerging destiny. In the case of the young mouse Karic, that destiny is membership in an apocryphal legion of heroes called The Mice Templar. Granted, it's the basic storyline of a thousand doorstop fantasy epics, but Glass renders it with alternating tenderness and brutality—all crystallized in sharp, Mike Mignola-esque majesty by Powers' Mike Oeming. Petersen's art in Mouse Guard is even more stunning. Lush and stippled, it's sublimely colored and profoundly beautiful. As with Fall, though, there just isn't enough plot or characterization to support the whole thing—the tale of warring mice and elemental hardship comes off as meandering and bland. And a nitpicky side note: If there was ever a compelling argument against computerized lettering, Mouse Guard is it. Part of the syntax of comics is the subtle accent of italicized words and bold script that only a human hand can impart. Mouse Guard's static, sterile text only emphasizes the emptiness of the dialogue, and it's a shame that Petersen's breathtaking obsession with detail stops at the written word… B+/B-

Unlike some of his peers, veteran artist Phil Foglio has made a smooth transition from pamphlets to webcomics—as the sixth and latest collection of his long-running Girl Genius amply demonstrates. The trade paperback Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne And The Golden Trilobite (Airship) collects months of Foglio's thrice-weekly Girl Genius installments, co-created with his wife Kaja. In spite of the hectic schedule, Trilobite is an effortless yet engagingly intricate romp through cheesecake-flavored steampunk, and Foglio's cartoony style is as simultaneously dense and breezy as ever. Rather than feeling trapped by webcomics, the Foglios appear to have been liberated by the format—and that sense of buoyant imagination and unbridled fun runs through every page… A-

Imagine having to drive like a maniac cross-country to save your kidnapped spouse, dodging treachery and blacktop assassins along the way. The concept didn't do Fox's short-lived Drive any good—and yet it's the same idea behind the six-issue miniseries The Black Diamond (AiT/Planet Lar). But writer-publisher Larry Young has constructed an airtight premise that sets his comic apart: In the near future, the commercial airline industry has collapsed, and the friction between coastal blue states and inland red states has led to the construction of an über-highway from D.C. to San Francisco, elevated 150 feet above the ground. Dubbed The Black Diamond (with no apology given to Kiss), the roadway quickly becomes a laissez-faire nation unto itself—one that suburban dentist Don McLaughlin must traverse from sea to shining sea in a hurry to save his ransomed wife Kate, daughter of the Diamond's chief engineer. The premise is beyond solid and has the potential to rival current winners like Wasteland and The Walking Dead—but with only a couple issues left, it's going to be near impossible for Young to fully actualize the book's promise. It doesn't help that Jon Proctor's sleek art is competent but cold, or that Young has a tendency to bog down the action with dialogue that aims for arch but comes off as starchy. If he'd only extend the series and give his fertile idea room to flourish, it'd be a different story… B-

Another entry in the unending glut of post-apocalyptic comics, Poison The Cure (The New Radio) initially stands out because of its format. Slightly oversized and printed on coarse, blond paper, the hefty première of the four-part series just plain feels different. And the content follows suit: Xeric-winner Alex Cahill departs from his previous, wordless The Last Island, thanks to writer Jad Ziade, who infuses Cahill's blocky, choppy dynamism with a story that feels more like magic realism than science fiction. The concept—strip-mining aliens survey a wasted Earth while the survivors of a resources-driven war conduct guerilla raids against chemical plants—is fairly ho-hum, but the jarring juxtaposition of details (aliens who eat spaghetti and meatballs and operate their spaceship with a steering wheel, terrestrial robots who debate ethics, militant doses of Aztlán nationalism) is utterly bracing. Just beneath the surface beats a pulse—albeit a crude one—akin to Mechanics-era Love And Rockets. With an uneven yet captivating debut, Poison The Cure is worth keeping an eye on… B

DC's four-volume collection of Jack Kirby's early-'70s creative explosion continues with Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus: Volume Two. Here, the ideas get bigger, the characters crazier, and the art even more cinematic, but the storylines start to feel even more rushed and tangled. It's a flawed masterpiece that even the final volume will leave unfinished, but it's filled with one head-flipping idea after another. In a two-page layout, two of Kirby's New Gods float over a prehistoric landscape of battling barbarians, and one explains to the other, "This is their time to fight for food and shelter. One day, when their bellies are full, they will look up and see us! Then they will think and dream!" It's a newsprint vista of casual violence, dogged optimism, larger-than-life characters, and bizarre concepts. In short, everything that made Kirby who he was… A-

Chalk it up to the good ol' American work ethic of the post-World War II era: Even the guys who drew silly comics for little kids threw everything they had into their craft. True, the artists behind the strips in Harvey Comics Classics Volume 1: Casper The Friendly Ghost (Dark Horse) were no Carl Barks or Dan DeCarlo, but they weren't slouches, either. In fact, many of them were Paramount animators by day, and their originally uncredited work on Casper from 1949 to 1966 is given a glowing resurrection and appreciation here. In restored black-and-white, these strips sparkle: The linework is inhumanly fluid and superb, and the sheer draftsmanship is staggering. The gag-punctuated stories, of course, are as insubstantial as Casper himself, but there's enough spry whimsy at play to render this volume much more than an archival curiosity. Read these comics, then try to imagine Bone existing without them. B+

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