Comics Panel, September 27, 2007

Comics Panel, September 27, 2007

Though he's only 32, Adrian Tomine has been one of comics' premier cartoonists and storytellers for more than a decade, which is what makes Shortcomings (D&Q), his first stab at a graphic novel, so disappointing. The story of an Asian-American theater manager who loses his girlfriend because of his inescapable attraction to white girls sounds like something Tomine should readily connect with, but unlike his tightly constructed, purposefully untidy short stories, Shortcomings feels overextended and overexplained. The first chapter sets up the conflict well, raising issues of cultural expectation and racial identity politics, and exploring how both affect sexual desire. But the remaining two chapters merely repeat the themes of the first, adding some dead-end plot twists and shrill, tin-eared dialogue. Regardless, Shortcomings is beautifully drawn, and as uncompromising as Tomine's more elliptical work—if only because the characters remain hard to like from page one to page 100… C

Jonathan Lethem's long-awaited revamp of the cult '70s Marvel Comics series Omega The Unknown begins by noting that it's "based on an unfinished dream by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney." Actually, the first issue of this new 10-issue miniseries is more or less a copy of its source material, from the introduction of a hyper-articulate orphan (raised by robots!) to the arrival of his mysterious, mute alien protector. Lethem, working with co-writer Karl Rusnak and artist Farel Dalrymple, adds a slightly detached tone, as well as lines like, "The forms at the edges of your world have their own sense of priorities," which seem to indicate that the story's going to move in more overtly metaphorical directions. Yet since the Gerber series only ran 10 issues before getting cancelled, will this re-do continue to follow the footprints already laid down? Even if it does, it might still be worthwhile. The original Omega—like nearly all Gerber's work—suffered from great ideas inconsistently executed, and maybe Lethem and company can turn this concept into the masterpiece it always could've been… B

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft who are sick of pastiches with the same old details—cults, ancient books, weird angles, Cthulhu, blah blah blah—could certainly do worse than to check out Thomas Ligotti, whose oblique horror stories come with Lovecraft's sense of lurking, overbearing dread and his open-ended conclusions, which don't necessarily fill in all the blanks they lay out. Fox Atomic Comics' sleek anthology The Nightmare Factory matches four of his stories with art by Colleen Doran, Ben Templesmith, Ted McKeever, and Michael Gaydos; Ligotti himself provided an introduction to each story. The scripts (by Darkness Falls screenwriter Joe Harris and Earthlight's Stuart Moore) tend to be oppressively wordy and sometimes irritatingly repetitive to little purpose, as in "Teatro Grottesco," which has people musing endlessly about the titular theater, rumored to be something horrible. Is it? Yes. In what way? It's never clear. Ligotti is more about mood than specifics, but while these stories aren't generally satisfying, they're beautifully, queasily rendered… B

It's hard not to draw a parallel between Mark Waid's new Potter's Field (Boom!) and Ed Brubaker's Criminal. But where Brubaker thrives in a noir-ish setting, Waid isn't making the transition from superhero comics with as much panache. The first issue of Potter's Field introduces John Doe, a cryptic figure who seeks to solve the mystery behind every anonymous body buried in Potter's Field, the cemetery where the city of New York dumps its, ahem, John and Jane Does. So far, so good, and Paul Azaceta's subtle art is nearly as chalky and bleak as Sean Phillips' stunning work in Criminal. But Waid tries to cram too much into the prelude: While there's a lot to be said for jumping right into the action, Doe's investigation of a murder linked to talk-show host Farrah Stone—a parody of Headline News' cloying Nancy Grace—skips by too quickly, and serves only to reveal the mechanics of Doe's citywide network of operatives (with a tip of the hat to The Shadow). Waid made news when he recently took over Boom! as editor-in-chief after the expiration of his contract with DC, where he made his name on solid Spandex operas like The Flash. With its grim aura and deliciously ambiguous morality, Potter's Field has plenty going for it, but it'll need to resolve some nagging issues with depth and pacing if it's going to satisfy in the long run… B-

For those who don't think an investigator of unidentified corpses named John Doe is literal enough, there's Black Metal (Oni), Rick Spears' and Chuck BB's ode to—why, yes—black metal. Luckily, people other than Scandinavian pagan headbangers can enjoy this graphic novel. The first in a new series, Black Metal is an endearingly evil chronicle of twin teens Shawn and Sam Stronghand, who puke at pampered suburbia while discovering the secret of their diabolical ancestry. In tone, format, and execution, the book is similar to Oni's excellent Scott Pilgrim—Shawn's girlfriend is even shown reading a Scott Pilgrim book—but BB's visuals draw on Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl and Jack Kirby's classic Thor and monster comics as much as they do manga. The result is hilariously juvenile and nihilistic, but with a core of sugary cuteness. Plus, there's something just plain awesome about a comic rated "Teen: Age 13+" that ends in a splash page depicting a self-mutilated demon abasing herself before the Devil and shouting, "Hail Satan!"… A-

Unlike Jeffrey Brown's last attempt at lo-fi, tongue-in-cheek adventure comics (the semi-sweet, clumsy superhero homage Bighead), his extended Transformers riff Incredible Change-Bots (Top Shelf) stays amusing throughout, in large par[OE1] [OE2] t because Brown has found exactly the right tone for this kind of only scantly ironic salute to the guileless storytelling of his youth. Incredible Change-Bots looks and reads like a pre-teen kid's attempt to recreate what he likes to watch on TV, peppered with the snarky asides of a clever undergraduate. Every time the robots transform into vehicles, accompanied by the sound effect "Incredible Change!", it's funny—and honestly, kind of cool… B+

Late B.C. cartoonist Johnny Hart was known more toward the end of his career for confusing non sequiturs and an oft-infuriating evangelical bent than for creating one of the most reliable funny newspaper comics appearing in papers from 1958 to roughly the mid-'80s. The posthumous collection Growingold With B.C.: A 50 Year Celebration (Checker) provides a necessary corrective to Hart's shaky reputation, offering a 200-page sampling of B.C. strips from different eras, showing off Hart's gifts for making hoary slapstick gags and surrealistic visual puns dance lightly across the page. The humor is hard to describe in words, but here's an example from a more text-based strip: It's a snippet of a children's book that reads, "See Puff play with the ball. See the ball unwind. See Mommy stab Puff with the knitting needle." How did someone so puckishly witty become such a heavy-handed old crank?… A-

Fantagraphics' year-by-year Krazy Kat collections have been a boon to comics historians and George Herriman devotees, but for those looking for a convenient entry point into Herriman's abstract impressionist world of love-struck cats and angry mice, the oversized hardcover The Kat Who Walked In Beauty should do the trick. Reprinting—for the first time—the nine-month run of "panoramic" Krazy Kat dailies that Herriman drew in 1920 for the handful of Hearst chain papers that still carried the strip, The Kat Who Walked In Beauty presents sprawling page after sprawling page of elegantly spare pen-scratches and colorfully gnarled dialect. Rich in detail and complex gag construction, these "panoramic dailies" are essential Americana: whimsical, funky, and wonderfully strange… A

Phil Yeh's Dinosaurs Across America (NBM) isn't as thorough and philosophical about U.S. geography as Larry Gonick's Cartoon Histories are about history, but Yeh does impart some basic information about state capitals and three or four fun facts per page while telling the simple story of a school-hating bunny who learns the importance of studying from a quartet of dinos. Previously available as a black-and-white pamphlet sold through schools, Dinosaurs Across America has now been colored and contained in a sturdy hardback, ideal for older elementary-school kids… B

In the '50s, while DC was struggling with the question of how to reinvent the superhero, the company's stable of writers and artists tried introducing elements of straight-up science fiction, hearkening back to the genre's roots in Flash Gordon, John Carter, and Buck Rogers adventures. Two of the most recent entries in the "Showcase Presents" series—one collecting Martian Manhunter stories from Detective Comics between 1955 and 1962, and one collecting Adam Strange stories from Mystery In Space between 1959 and 1963—essentially have reverse premises, both based on the idea of an honorable alien trying to make good on a new world. Showcase Presents: Martian Manhunter is the more simplistic of the two, presenting six-page detective tales starring J'onn J'onzz, a marooned Martian masquerading as an Earthling on the Denver police force. Joe Certa's art is rounded and cutesy—more like a kiddie comic than a superhero adventure—but Jack Miller's plotting is taut and twisty, and reads easy. In Showcase Presents: Adam Strange, the more reliably imaginative team of writer Gardner Fox, penciler Carmine Infantino, and inker Murphy Anderson follow the interstellar travels of an Earthman who rides a "Zeta-Beam" to the planet Rann every 62 days. There, he helps the locals—including his sexy girlfriend—beat back bizarre invaders. The Adam Strange stories are formulaic by design, but Fox and company slip in a note of pathos, keyed to Strange's frequent, sometimes unpredictable separations from the woman he loves… Martian Manhunter: B-; Adam Strange: B

Good children's books can carry the most devastating, grownup truths—and Sara Varon's Robot Dreams (First Second) is about as great as they get. The wordless, adorably rendered graphic novel seems like it's all cuddles at first, but the tale of a dog who buys and assembles a robot pal—and then abandons him when he rusts on the beach—probes themes of failure, self-denial, helplessness, and alienation. After trying to make friends with aardvarks, the dog barfs up ants; after buddying up with some ducks, he mourns when they fly south for the winter. Meanwhile, the robot—still very much alive, though immobile—has vivid, whimsical daydreams of being free and loved again. In spite of the heavy message, Robot Dreams is far from grim—in fact, its unexpected ending is pretty damn redemptive, even as Varon's crystal-clear storytelling and gorgeous, painted art keep things nourishingly sweet… A-

In his notes at the end of Issue 10 of Local (Oni), writer Brian Wood acknowledges that many readers have turned on the series, mostly because they find main character Megan McKeenan annoying. Unfortunately, it's easy to sympathize with those detractors. The 12-issue miniseries revolves around Megan, a stereotypical hipster who moves to a different city every issue in an attempt to find herself and her place in the world. A year elapses between each installment, and some stories focus on her relationships with boyfriends or roommates, while others push her to the background to spotlight her brother, her young cousin, or her favorite Richmond indie band. The concept is great, but in the course of Megan's life from age 18 to 27, she's gone from shallowly irksome to shallowly morose. Granted, as Wood points out in his defense, flawed characters can be the best kind. Too bad Megan is worse than flawed—she's poorly written. Another problem with Local—especially for readers who, like its creators, are music fans—is the same fault that crippled Jonathan Lethem's last novel, You Don't Love Me Yet: The depictions of "indie-rock life" often ring painfully hollow and contrived. Not that Wood doesn't know what he's writing about, but it's clear after 10 issues of Local that he has a hard time translating that knowledge into a decent comic. With two issues left in the run, here's hoping that Wood and artist Ryan Kelly—whose unassuming yet nuanced art shoulders a huge portion of the narrative—are able to pull Local out of its tailspin… C-

What is there to say about Dark Horse's Groo 25th Anniversary Special? Like a sword-swinging, cheese-dip-swilling cockroach, Groo The Wanderer has stubbornly outlived scores of creator-owned characters from the '80s. Chalk it up to the steadily simmering brilliance of writer Mark Evanier and artist Sergio Aragonés (who may never dodge the shadow of those iconic, in-the-margin gags in Mad). The thick book is packed full of more of what folks love Groo for: a frenzy of Conan-inspired goofs and spoofs with a little social commentary swirling around in the mix. The duo bracket the stories with some quick, sentimental strips—including a brief history of Groo that lampoons its own longevity—and "The Groo Alphabet," a rundown of all the side-splitting witches, dragons, and angry natives that have plagued the idiot barbarian over the past 25 years. There's nothing new to report here, but flipping through the book is like catching up with an old (and really dumb) friend… B+

A Sampling Of This Season's Top Shelf is exactly what it sounds like—a free sample volume with previews and info on Top Shelf's 2007 roster, plus bits and pieces of a schedule extending into 2009. On the one hand, it's a black-and-white volume, which doesn't do justice to many of the color titles featured. On the other hand, it's 264 pages of free comic excerpts, and Top Shelf is willing to ship it out free. It's available in comic-book stores or via topshelfcomix.com… B+

One title that the Top Shelf sampler does do right by is Christian Slade's Korgi: Book 1, a wordless fantasy about a tribe of forest-dwelling sprite types and their korgi companions. It's pretty adorable and precious, at least until someone loses an eye. Seriously. Literally. It's all adorable grinning korgis (like corgis, apparently, but with magical powers) and their happy forest friends, frolicking through the woods picking fruit together until the monsters descend, and the sweet raven-haired girl pictured on the cover bops one on the head hard enough to make his eye pop out. That weird bit of violence aside, Korgi is mostly harmless and guaranteed to be loved by children. Its Disney-esque beauty and Bone-like comic timing and fantasy adventure are thoroughly enjoyable, and Slade's black-and-white draftsmanship is impeccable. And hey, it even has its own trailerA-

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