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February 12, 2010

Jae Lee is missing as penciler on the latest Dark Tower story arc/hardcover collection The Dark Tower: Fall Of Gilead (Marvel), and it shows to some degree in the art; his partner Richard Isanove continues with his style, and the latest book closely resembles its predecessors, but a certain level of detail is missing, usually in the characters’ faces. That’s only apparent upon careful examination, but the Dark Tower books to date have been gorgeously designed to encourage such swooning over the art. Still, with the story at the breathless point it’s reached, it’s likely enough that readers will be moving through this book more quickly than the last three anyway. Roland Deschain has unintentionally murdered his traitorous mother, and is prepared to hang for it to uphold the law of Gilead. But Gilead is under siege, with its heroes rapidly falling to John Farson’s plotting. The outcome is foregone—it’s right there in the title—so the weight of the book comes from how it all unfolds. Which it does unevenly, alas. The first half of the book has the gravity of foreshadowing fulfilled. It opens with Robin Furth’s one-shot special issue “The Sorcerer”—which leans heavily on the series’ mythic and magic aspects—and then focuses on individual characters, their weaknesses, and their subsequent fates. But after Gilead’s leaders are undone, the rest of the book zips by as almost an afterthought, rushing through a key battle as though it’s just an impediment before the next book. The whole arc could have stood to be a couple issues longer, such that writer Peter David could have continued to focus on the significant details of a story that’s unlikely to get told again. Hopefully he’ll have more room to stretch with the next arc, The Battle Of Jericho Hill, which is already underway, with Lee back on board… B

In recent years, one of the most dynamic indie comics scenes in the world has developed in Sweden. This year, Top Shelf brings English-language versions of some of the choice selections from the Swedish comics underground to America, in addition to bringing some of their creators to this summer’s convention circuit, in what they’re calling the “Swedish invasion.” Mats Jonsson’s Hey Princess, from 2007, is more or less a hipster soap opera; its blend of smirking comedy and dramatic romance is hit-or-miss, and the art style doesn’t have much to speak for it, but it does give an interesting jaundiced view of the European cultural scene. Simon Gärdenfors’ The 120 Days Of Simon, from 2008, likewise suffers from crude iconic drawings, but its autobiographical tale of Gärdenfors’ period of aimless, broke wandering from one end of Sweden to the other is hilarious and sometimes shocking. Kolbeinn Karlsson’s The Troll King is the best of the lot, an unsettling, alien take on Swedish mythology and culture filtered through a distinctly postmodern sensibility; its style and overall tone are reminiscent of the best of the Fort Thunder collective. Niklas Asker’s Second Thoughts is an excellent fractured modern romance, full of smart, moving contemplations of the difference between what people want and what they’re willing to take; hopefully, the clean linework’s eerie similarity to that of Adrian Tomine won’t put readers off the outstanding story. A two-volume anthology of Swedish comics, From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, is by definition an on-and-off affair; of the two, the second volume—showcasing some terrific young talent like Nanna Johansson and Sara Granér, is the one to have. Last but not least, Frederick Strümberg’s Swedish Comics History is only likely to attract the attention of scholars of the medium and hardcore comics geeks, but it deserves a wider audience—it’s comprehensive, handsome, remarkably well-researched, and written in a witty, engaging style… Hey Princess: C+; The 120 Days Of Simon: B; The Troll King: A-; Second Thoughts: B+; From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, Vol. 1: B-; From The Shadow Of The Northern Lights, Vol. 2: B; Swedish Comics History: B+

Michael Avon Oeming presumably has his hands pretty full these days. He’s still handling the art for Bryan J.L. Glass’ ongoing series The Mice Templar, and for Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers, which just started up again. And now he’s co-scripting his own Image series, God Complex, with Dan Berman. John Broglia’s art for the series looks noticeably similar to Oeming’s, with lots of blacks and stark, simply colored, iconically exaggerated figures. Which seems appropriate to the subject matter—the series, now on issue #3, follows the Greek god Apollo as he gets fed up with his pantheon and takes up residence on Earth, intending to divorce himself from godly duties and live and die as a mortal. This doesn’t sit well with his fellow gods, who set out to spoil his mortal life and get him back to Olympus. The results play out not unlike Powers, with lots of blunt exchanges, broad emotions, and big superhero-style conflicts, particularly in the latest issue, which has Apollo facing off against errand-boy Hercules. As both an adventure story and a personal story, God Complex has its plusses, but it falls into the shadow of some too-similar stories, like the Destruction-packs-it-in plotline in Sandman and too many other recent revivals of the Greco-Roman myths… B

Speaking of Powers, the first few issues of the new “volume three” arc cram so much history into so little space that they become pretty confusing; several re-reads help, and it’ll no doubt all look better in collected form someday, but casual readers are likely to be lost as more of Christian Walker’s history unfolds. His current murder case has him flashing back both to his time as a Nazi-bustin’ superhero in World War II and his stint as a spoiled, soused Rat Pack-type in Vegas after the war. All of which feels a little too much like Forrest Gump; it would make sense that such an exceptional (and apparently immortal) individual, having been around throughout history, would have been at the center of many scenes, but the sequence where he thumps Nazi robots feels like a Hellboy outtake, and frankly, knowing that he’s been just about everywhere and everywhen means that Bendis could fill in pieces of his past forever, without ever saying much about who he is today. Of more interest is his new partner’s attempts to live up to the perceived rep of her predecessor, the big revelation at the end of issue #2, the weirdness going on with Walker in the sack, and wherever all this is going… B-

McSweeney’s Issue 33 takes the form of a major metropolitan Sunday newspaper, complete with a sports section, a magazine pull-out, and an oversized color comics page—the latter of which is also available separately. Conceptually, the McSweeney’s comics section is magnificent, hearkening back to the early days of newspapers, when the funnies had to be spread out on the floor to be read properly. But there’s no real consistency of approach to the material. Some cartoonists riff on the full-page adventure strips of yore: Dan Clowes squeezes a whole universe of romance and thrills into “The Christian Astronauts,” for example, while Adrian Tomine delivers a very funny mash-up of superhero action and his typical relationship drama. Others, though, like Kim Deitch, Gabrielle Bell, and Ivan Brunetti, just do what they usually do. Granted, it’s always great to see a new giant-sized piece by Chris Ware or Seth (the latter of whom finally returns to autobiography), but unlike the similarly enormous Kramers Ergot #7, the McSweeney’s comics section doesn’t present the format to its best advantage. It’s like any other modern comics anthology, only shorter in length and taller in size… B

DC’s “Blackest Night” crossover event has been digging dead characters out of their graves and reviving them as repulsive zombies, possessed by a malignant spirit. Apparently, even dead comic-book series aren’t immune to the curse. Starman #81 (DC) picks up where the ’90s cult comic left off numbering-wise, and original writer James Robinson is also back on board (with art by Fernando Dagnino and Bill Sienkiewicz), but otherwise, this new Starman issue has diddly to do with the formally daring, emotionally rich series that’s so beloved by fans of sophisticated superheroics. For starters, the hero Jack Knight is nowhere to be found; instead, the story has ambiguous anti-hero The Shade fighting the reincarnated Starman David Knight in order to prove his devotion to his cop lover, Hope O’Dare. The issue is treacly and underplotted, and though it drops references left and right to characters and incidents from the previous 80 issues, those nods to the past will mainly just make Starman buffs anxious for the next Omnibus volume to come out. If “Blackest Night” is setting out to prove that some characters and concepts are best left buried, it’s been succeeding remarkably well… C-

Dash Shaw was praised to the skies for his hefty 2008 graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button, but the 26-year-old cartoonist’s real strength so far in his career has been his short strips, which have displayed a diversity of subject matter and style that make each piece feel like something wholly new. The Unclothed Man In The 35th Century A.D. (Fantagraphics) collects the work Shaw has done over the last few years for Mome, along with storyboards and sketches for his IFC animated series. Frankly, Shaw could’ve waited a few years to put together a book like this; the artwork from his animation feels like it’s padding out a too-short collection, or perhaps vice versa. Regardless, The Unclothed Man does reveal a future master in his formative stages, working to find a balance between his interest in subtle adult relationships—teacher/pupil, flirter/flirtee, etc.—and his yen to try out new approaches to drawing and coloring. Shaw may be the cartoonist of the rising generation most capable of delivering a long-form work with the formal daring and humanity of a David Mazzucchelli or an Art Spiegelman. Consider The Unclothed Man a document of his baby steps… B+

Nowadays, movies based on obscure comics come out just about every weekend, but back in 1991, it was a big deal in the alt-comics community that Disney had made a big-screen version of Dave Stevens’ little-read retro pulp homage The Rocketeer. The movie was a box-office disappointment, but it was a treat for fans of Stevens’ original stories, similarly recalling the glamour and seediness of ’30s Hollywood. Now, the late Stevens’ full Rocketeer run is available in the hardcover collection The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures (IDW), which tells the whole story of how daring test pilot Cliff Secord gets caught between mobsters, G-men, and corporate stooges when he stumbles upon a working jetpack. Stevens’ version is a tad racier than Disney’s version—Cliff’s love interest is based on nudie-cutie bondage queen Betty Page, after all—but it’s mostly fast-paced, throwback action fare, with a plot twist and a fight scene every few pages. These stories were a breath of fresh air in the ’80s, and they’re just as invigorating now… A-

The stated reason for the re-release of Human Target: Chance Meetings (Vertigo) is to tie in with the new Fox action series Human Target. But while they feature the same character with more or less the same job description, there’s really no comparison: The TV show is a fun, frothy bit of ’80s-throwback adventure, but it bears none of the depth and breadth of Peter Milligan’s late-’90s revival of DC’s Christopher Chance. The show de-emphasizes Chance’s status as a master of disguise, while the comic hammers it home at every turn; indeed, Milligan’s script keeps us in the dark from page to page and even panel to panel as to who we’re really looking at. (The show has hinted at the dark psychological factors that arise from constantly impersonating other people, but the comic dives into that deep end headfirst.) So while fans of the TV show aren’t likely to recognize the tone, the story, or even the characters in this reissue trade (which combines two story arcs, “Chance Meetings” and “Final Cut,” originally published separately), they should stick around and read it anyway; it’s a far better treatment of the character than any network’s come up with. The first arc’s Edvin Biukovic art is better suited to the action, but Javier Pulido’s more cartoonish style in the second still works… B+

Fans of Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s kitschy, crowded Street Angel have already gotten a few brief, teasing tastes of Afrodisiac, a supposed ’70s comic-book blaxploitation hero-pimp with a giant ’fro and a way with the ladies. He comes into his own with the hardcover book Afrodisiac (Adhouse), which “collects” a handful of faux-issues in a wide variety of artfully familiar styles. Like Street Angel, Afrodisiac is a straight-faced joke: Each issue starts with a blurb explaining the hep hero’s origin story, though it’s a different broadly iconic origin every time, and each takes on a different look and style, from manga to ’80s cartoon to Archie Comics to romance comics to noir. The art variety is a hoot, and the parody is knowledgeable, self-aware, and extensive, but the actual stories get repetitive early on, then never leave their rut: Faced with a male enemy, Afrodisiac invariably just leans back and waits for the inevitable female sidekicks or servants to fall under his irresistible sexual sway, release him, and then fall over themselves, waiting to be added to his harem of hos. (The female villains are even easier, pun fully intended.) It’s a cute fantasy, with the swagger and verve of the movies it’s channeling, but the impressive diversity of the art stands in awkward contrast to the lack of diversity in the plots, and the one joke gets old fast… B-

Of all the contributors to the junior Flight spin-off Flight Explorer, Jake Parker seemed to be aiming most clearly for the youngest set. His simple, clean, cartoony art and broad adventure mentality doesn’t have much to offer adult fans, but it’s the kind of solid intro to comics that gets newbies started on the road to becoming adult fans. His Flight Explorer hero Missile Mouse returns in his full-length debut book, Missile Mouse And The Star Crusher (Graphix), which is more of an introduction to the grouchy space hero, his painful past, his Indiana Jones-in-space present, and his world of double-crossing agents and giant, fangy space slugs. Creative character design, vivid color, plenty of excitement, and a galaxy-wide story make this a lively, fun one… B

It’s a testament to the potential of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog that the Dr. Horrible (Dark Horse) one-shot is so disappointing. Written by Zack Whedon, a co-author and co-creator of the original musical, the comic is cute enough, a standard prequel that introduces our supervillain-to-be at a young age, explains his motivations, shows the origins of his rivalry with do-gooder Captain Hammer, and throws in cameos from some other familiar faces. It’s breezy, Joelle Jones’ art is cheerful and just the right side of kid-friendly, and it feels a little mean-spirited to criticize such a breezy nothing for its lack of substance. Still, the original 42-minute musical had so many clever side-gags and such solid world-design that it's a shame to waste even a small opportunity to expand on the premise. Blog succeeded, in part, because of its exuberant mocking of comic-book clichés, which simultaneously undermined and embraced the world of square-jawed heroes, cackling mad scientists, and evil schemes that almost, but not quite, go entirely according to plan. To put that in an actual comic, and play things completely straight, makes for nothing worse than a minor disappointment. B-