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February 26, 2010

Jason Shiga’s interactive choose-your-own-adventure book Meanwhile has been around in some form at least since 2002, when Time profiled him and marveled over Meanwhile and his other intricate, interactive self-published photocopied comics. But Amulet Books’ new, more elaborate color edition represents a big step for the book’s accessibility and presentation quality. This glossy hardback edition pushes readers through a series of flowchart-like decisions, using external tabs and connecting lines to move from page to page through the story’s many choices. (The cover claims there are 3,856 possible storylines.) It all starts with a decision between vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Appropriately enough, vanilla leads to a few bland panels and a bland ending, while chocolate branches out in a variety of directions, in which the protagonist might travel through time, destroy humanity, secretly become everyone else on earth, or find utopia. As with the classic choose-your-own-adventure stories, there’s a good deal of recursion and frustration in looking for new paths—a goodly number of those 3,856 possible paths surely just involve performing the same actions in different orders, or repeating them more or fewer times. And Shiga periodically teases readers with entire pages of spaghetti-like strands of tangled paths that are difficult to follow. But the whole enterprise is appealingly ambitious, wildly good-humored, and enjoyably weird… B

Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan returned to their short-story collection Demo (Vertigo) this month, with the first of six stand-alone-story issues. But issue No. 1, “The Waking Life Of Angels,” doesn’t do much to justify the series’ revival. In Wood’s story a woman suffers from a recurring dream of a woman walking up stairs and falling from a railing in an elaborately designed, high-ceilinged space. Obsessed with the dream, she eventually leaves her job, boyfriend, country, and life behind, in hopes of saving the woman’s life. The ending is obvious, though the execution is strange, but either way, the story seems unlikely and the point winds up being fairly vague. Or maybe the point is Cloonan’s sharp black-and-white art, which winds up being far more poignant than the script. Her execution of the dream-warped space the protagonist finds herself in is stellar, and the woman herself is a tousled, complicated beauty who sometimes looks like a grown-up frustrated with the weight of the world around her, and sometimes looks like a haunted, sleep-addled child. The story doesn’t bear much re-reading, but Cloonan’s art is worth a second and third look… C

Similar, and yet very dissimilar, is the first issue of Ben McCool and Ben Templesmith’sChoker (Image), which just barely establishes a couple of characters, a world, and a plot, but does a hell of a job establishing mood. The protagonist is straight out of a noir film: a miserable ex-cop named Johnny Jackson, now working as a PI and hating it. Then his old boss offers him his job back if he captures a notorious “drug baron and all-around scumfuck” whom Jackson once put away, but who has escaped and disappeared. Also: vampires are involved somehow. None of this goes much of anywhere in the first of the series’ six issues, but Templesmith has a lot to say with his usual art style, which alternates dark, claustrophobic spaces with bright, neon-like highlights and vividly colored, almost monochromatic panels. His fans will certainly be on board, whether this series goes somewhere interesting or not… B-

Drawn & Quarterly’s “John Stanley Library” collection has been a boon to fans of vintage kid-comics in general and Stanley’s wry work in particular, though some of the design choices—like the lack of contextual material, and the thin selection in each book—have been a significant drawback. Thirteen “Going On Eighteen” (D&Q) is a welcome exception. The book collects nine full issues of Stanley’s early-’60s teen comic, and adds a lengthy introduction by Stanley fan (and JSL designer) Seth. The comics themselves are among Stanley’s best work: funny, well-crafted stories about willful teenage drama queen Val and her bullying best friend Judy. Stanley brings the kind of varied cast and quaint small-town setting to Thirteen “Going On Eighteen” that he did to his legendary Little Lulu run, and while Thirteen never really broke out and became another Archie, Stanley lavished care on the work—especially once he took over as the artist as well as the writer—and filled the pages with his skewed sense of humor. Only a Stanley comic would spend an entire page on a girl laughing her head off because her sister moans about a “shredded heart.” (“I thought of cannibal breakfast food and I flipped,” Val explains, after her sister runs out of the room crying.) Stanley had his own sense of pacing—at times breakneck, at times languid, always amusing—and it’s fun to see how he applied it to teen-comic clichés. It’s even better to see it so well-presented… A-

Normally, a regular issue of a generally unremarkable story arc on a standard-issue Big Two comic wouldn’t rate an entry here in the Comics Panel, but Captain America #602 (Marvel) has gained an awful lot of attention for all the wrong reasons. In pursuit of a fanatic group of militia types, Cap and the Falcon run across a Tea Party protest, which writer Ed Brubaker describes in polite terms as an “anti-tax protest,” and artist Luke Ross populates with the sort of people who you’d actually see at a Tea Party rally, albeit about 20 years too young and 100 pounds too thin. It’s a pretty harmless portrayal and it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story, but actual right-wingers, who seem to have little to do but be offended by things, raised a huge stink about it and forced an apology out of spineless Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. He threw letterer Joe Caramagna, who selected the material shown on protests signs in the scene, under the bus, but again, it’s hard to understand why anyone took umbrage, since Caramagna chose signs from actual Tea Party protests. So, tempest in a teabag aside, how’s the comic? Ennh… B-

As the kickoff to an ongoing series, The Weird World Of Jack Staff #1 (Image) is no great shakes. It’s largely a recap of what’s gone before, for those not already acquainted with the indie cult superhero created by writer-artist Paul Grist. But in what Grist is claiming will be a wide-ranging, anthology-style story that furthers the adventures of heroic Brit superhero John Smith, as well as a showcase for well-liked minor characters like Tom Tom The Robot Man, it does at least lay out some story elements that will likely pay dividends down the road. Grist’s art is as likeable as ever, and his storytelling will at least have a chance to stretch. While the opening salvo is best left for those who have no familiarity with Jack Staff, there’s enough put in place to keep wiser readers tuning in for the next several months… B

Thanks to Carl Barks’ flair for storytelling and appealing art, the Scrooge McDuck wing of the Walt Disney family tends to get the most attention from comic book fans. But Mickey Mouse has had his share of comic books, too, both in the United States and abroad, where creators in Italy, Brazil, Denmark and other countries all put their regional spin on the character. The new collection Mickey Mouse Classics: Mouse Tails (Boom!) offers a cross-section of Mickey adventures, spanning from some 1931 comic strips from Floyd Gottfredson (who drew the strip until retiring in 1975) through an apparently Face/Off-inspired story by Byron Erickson. It’s a neat (though thin) sampler, highlighted by Barks’ only pure Mickey Mouse story and a bizarre Italian adventure co-starring Mickey’s friend from the future, Eega Beeva. A bit more context would have made the collection more appealing, and the modern colors make some stories looks a little too out of time. But with luck, there will be future installments that correct these oversights, since there are plenty more Mickey stories where these came from… B+

As mentioned above, we don’t normally cover mid-series issues—there are just too many of them, and too little time—but how about that issue #21 of Image’s The Astounding Wolfman? Until now, the title has largely been interesting but unspectacular, just another werewolf story, superhero story, and branch in Robert Kirkman’s sprawling Invincible world. In fact, the first half of this issue is largely more of the same, including a big showdown that comes to nothing but a few double-page splash images and a big anticlimax. The revelations that follow, though, are major. And the final-panel reveal is a particularly welcome surprise, given the protagonist’s relative easy-goingness until now, not to mention the way Zechariah’s escape looked as though the series was headed into the usual familiar superhero-story loop, where the bad guys are no sooner incarcerated than they break out to launch a new storyline. The series has four issues left to run, and if it lives up to this standard, it’ll be a pretty impact-heavy event. Conveniently enough, the third Astounding Wolfman trade is just out too… B

The current wave of Greco-Roman myth revitalization continues yet still more as First Second launches a series of books illustrating the history of the Greek gods, starting withOlympians: Zeus—King Of The Gods. George O’Connor’s slim book is meant for kids, and comes complete with lightweight discussion questions (“Zeus’s dad tries to eat him. Has your dad ever tried to eat you?”) and an overall broad and enthusiastic tone that glosses over some of the darker elements of the material. But it’s reasonably entertaining and exciting, especially in the lengthy gods-on-gods war in the middle. And O’Connor (artist on Ball Peen Hammer and Journey Into Mohawk Country) fleshes it out with an admirably dense study guide that comes with copious endnotes and extra information on characters, including their “modern legacies.” The whole project feels a bit like an old Classics Illustrated comic, but those were enjoyable enough, and had their uses when we were all young too. B-