January 15, 2010

Although there’s never going to be a better time to take advantage of the hype, it’s hard to think of a compelling reason for Christian De Metter’s Shutter Island (HarperCollins) to exist. The adaptation is faithful enough—Dennis Lehane has been enthusiastic about it—and De Metter’s washed-out, muted watercolor style is an effective way of expressing the tone of the surreal horror-mystery. But aside from the art, which can be enjoyed just as well in better De Metter works like Le Sang Des Valentines and Vers Le Demon, the comic adds nothing to the novel, and it’s doubtful that anyone who enjoys the movie will be tempted to seek it out. Useful only for spoiling the movie for those who haven’t already read the book—a feat that can be performed for free on the Internet—it’s accomplished without actually accomplishing anything… B-

One of the funniest jokes in Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years Of Playboy Cartoons (Fantagraphics)—a massive, three-volume, nearly thousand-page collection—comes at the end. The “Index Of Abhorations” lists occurrences of everything from “bear” (one) to “Y2K” (two). Most subjects only make a handful of appearances until “Alien(s),” “Monsters(s),” “Chaos and destruction,” and “Gigantic,” all of which dwarf the topics around them. (“Demented Santa” makes a lot of appearances, too.) Since 1957, Wilson’s work has provided a grim counterpoint to the skin and pleasure-seeking of Playboy. Twisting pop-culture icons to dark-witted ends, Wilson places his characters in a world of terror and understatement. In one color cartoon from 1968, for example, a concerned-looking woman walks arm-in-arm with a half-man/half-fish beastie straight out of Lovecraft. The caption: “Harry, I really think you ought to go to the doctor.” Wilson’s gags range from the wistful to the barbed without warning. He rarely has an explicit political point to make, and apart from the occasional topical reference and the annual New Year’s cartoon, most of the cartoons take place in an indefinite era. But the incidental commentary here about human selfishness and shortsightedness squeezed between the B-movie monsters and little green men feels timeless, as does the remarkably high level of quality Wilson has maintained over the years. The later cartoons have a slightly broader, more grotesque look, but the same droll, cobwebbed wit. “I’m so glad you enjoyed our little dinner,” a token bride tells her elderly dining companion in a 2007 effort, “and that you didn’t taste the poison.” Wilson landed his longtime gig because Hugh Hefner, once an aspiring cartoonist himself, wanted Playboy to have its own Charles Addams. Instead, he got a talent with a funny, unsettling voice all his own… A

The first two books in the “Vertigo Crime” graphic-novel series came off more like typical Vertigo fare (albeit in black-and-white) than like any kind of game-changer for the medium. The third book, The Chill, is more distinctive, thanks largely to writer Jason Starr, a veteran crime novelist making his first foray into the medium. Unlike a lot of comics novices, Starr works well with his artist (Mick Bertilorenzi), putting together a 180-page comic that holds together as a comic, while also aspiring to the heft of a novel or a movie. The Chill follows a police investigation into the crimes of a pair of aged Irish serial killers—father and daughter—who enchant young men, then slaughter them. One of the family’s first victims, a former Boston beat cop whom they attacked in the old country, long ago, tries to clue the NYPD in to what’s going on, but gets dismissed as a crackpot, and has to rely on knowledgeable priests and vloggers to aid his own pursuit of the bad guys. Starr paces the story well, revealing little details about the characters in and around some bloody murder scenes. But the sensational elements are what make The Chill such a kick: the frequent nudity, the ritual dismemberment, the nods to Druidic folklore, and so on. The Chill would make an entertaining throwback drive-in movie; as it is, it’s a gripping graphic novel… B+

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor And The Bogus Identity (Vertigo) collects the first five issues of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ excellent new series, all about a well-known fantasy author’s son who may in fact be the author’s most famous character come to life. Carey and Gross have some fun in the early going with the parallels between Tommy Taylor and Harry Potter, and with comparing and contrasting a fictional world of spells and puzzles with our more mundane world, where people merely obsess over books full of spells and puzzles. (The cleverest recurring conceit in The Unwritten involves excerpts from all the blogs, fan sites, and message boards where people speculate about who Tommy Taylor really is and what he’s up to.) But while the adventures of a confused, internationally famous, possibly fictional young adult are plenty entertaining all on their own, The Unwritten has also deepened from issue to issue, adding new components to the mystery of Tommy Taylor’s existence while suggesting a vast conspiracy to control the opinions of the populace through what they read for pleasure. This first collection is too short (though it’s also bargain-priced, which is nice), but at least it ends with the series’ best story yet, “How The Whale Became,” which imagines a career-long back-and-forth between Rudyard Kipling and the secret cabal that runs the world. With that story, The Unwritten makes a leap from being just a promising new Vertigo title to being on-track to become the best ongoing Vertigo book since Sandman. And given that Vertigo has delivered the likes of 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, and Fables since Sandman ended, that’s saying something… A-

Less instantly grabbing, but possibly deeper, is Vertigo’s new Daytripper limited series, which has Brazilian twins Gabriel Bá (Umbrella Academy) and Fábio Moon (Casanova) collaborating again, this time on a largely down-to-earth slice of life about a wannabe writer living in São Paulo, Brazil in the shadow of his more famous father. At least that’s what it appears to be from the first issue, which ends in an unexpected place that seems to obviate the need for a second one. Nonetheless, issue No. 2 takes up the protagonist’s story at an earlier, less fixed time in his life, as he wanders Brazil with a good friend and learns a bit more about life than he seemed to know in the later age of issue No. 1. Issue No. 2 ends much like the first one did, which undoes the previous story, deepens its mystery, and suggests a pattern for the next eight issues to come, but so many questions have been raised at this point that it might make sense to wait for a trade collection and read the whole series at once. Bá and Moon establish an appealingly patient pacing, taking their time on establishing details of characters and setting, but neither of these standalone stories necessarily go anywhere exceptional on their own. The second is a sweeter, stronger installment than the first, and the texture of the art and the story both suggest this will be a memorable project when it’s done. For now, it seems too fractional to have found its feet… B

As high-concept videogames go, Dante’s Inferno, due out in February, has to be one of the more ridiculous ideas ever to come down the pike. Hiring the guy who wrote Monster’s Ball to create a hack-and-slash actioner based on Dante Alighieri’s epic poem of spiritual allegory and religious terror is goofy enough, but add to the fact that Dante is portrayed as a sort of crusading super-wizard/paladin who rescues his girlfriend Beatrice from Hell, and you’ve got the most misbegotten classical adaptation since Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter. Now take away even the moderate literary talents of Will Rokos, replace him with the generally incoherent Christos Gage, and provide some striking but impenetrable art by Diego Latorre, and you’ve got Dante’s Inferno (Wildstorm), which is inessential even by the low standards of comic-book to videogame adaptations… C-

And speaking of pointless adaptations, perhaps the most pointless is Weekly World News: The Irredemption Of Ed Anger (IDW). Chris Ryall, the company’s editor-in-chief and author of the four-issue miniseries, seems to predict the common objection: Every interview he’s done about WWN begins with him spieling some variant of “You’re probably asking yourself, why bother?” Readers will probably still keep asking themselves that; although it’s clearly a labor of love for Ryall, it’s unlikely to resonate with anyone who doesn’t fondly remember the over-the-top, self-parodying newspaper tabloid. And even those who do will notice that the story isn’t much, humor-wise, beyond ‘I remember that!’ referential gags about Bat Boy, space aliens, and freeze-dried babies. Barely passable art by Alan Robinson doesn’t help much either. The best part of the comic is the back matter, which excerpts actual Weekly World News articles, including some choice selections from their (fictional) ultra-right-wing columnist, Ed Anger… C

To continue the theme… Stephen King fans certainly aren’t lacking for comic-book adaptations these days, with Dark Tower: The Battle Of Jericho Hill underway and The Stand continuing to roll out, both at Marvel. Del Rey Comics has picked up the mantle with The Talisman: The Road Of Trials, the first arc in a planned multi-year adaptation of The Talisman, the 1984 fantasy novel by King and Peter Straub. Scripted by Robin Furth, King’s research assistant and co-writer on the Dark Tower comics series, Road Of Trials just hit issue No. 3, and it’s moving along at a measured pace, necessarily dropping a lot of the novel’s texture, but keeping in even minor dialogue and action. Still, the art is somewhat annoying—the characters’ set faces and awkward stiffness often suggests an overreliance on photographic reference at the expense of looseness and expression, and everything from the panels to the poses seems too rigid. That, and the texture of the novel was much of its appeal. Much like the Stand adaptation, this take on The Talisman feels like an old Classics Illustrated comic, with all the busy incident and none of the richness of the original… C+

One of the best-looking series of last year had a somewhat predictable ending, but the route it took to get there was terrific. No wonder Image opted for the hardcover, oversized, glossy release treatment for the collected edition of Steven T. Seagle and Marco Cinello’s Soul Kiss, turning it into something fairly close to a small pop-art poster book. The story follows a woman who makes a bargain with the devil to save herself from a would-be rapist, and winds up with the unwanted power to send people to hell with a kiss, and the unwanted responsibility to choose 10 souls to make the trip. Cinello uses Seagle’s vividly emotional framework as an excuse for equally vivid pages, some keyed to a single bright color or tone, some designed so Seagle’s brassy, prickly heroine practically pops off the page. The art is executed in various degrees of stylization, with big, dramatic splash pages alternating with Eisner-esque panel experiments and conventional boxes; sometimes it’s all loose, jazzy, and free-form, while at other times it’s finely detailed and formalist. Either way, it’s generally beautiful… A-

Serving as a companion piece to Blake Bell’s analytical study/biography Strange And Stranger: The World Of Steve Ditko, the anthology Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics) collects more than 200 pages of the horror, science-fiction, and crime comics the future Spider-Man artist drew in 1953 and ’54, in the days before the Comics Code Authority sucked the blood out of the industry. The writing in these stories isn’t as clever as the contemporaneous EC comics, but even in his formative years, Ditko was a cartoonist on a par with Johnny Craig, Harvey Kurtzman, Bernard Krigstein, and the like. Strange Suspense offers page after lurid four-color page of Ditko’s weird monsters, rubber-faced crooks, and abstracted landscapes, creating a world far more vivid than anything conjured up by the words atop the pictures. The book is a white-knuckle trip through Ditko’s fevered imagination… A-

Not even Steve Ditko has as inhospitable a head as Al Columbia, a cartoonist who publishes too infrequently, perhaps because it takes time to purge his work of anything even remotely pleasant. Columbia’s book Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days {Artifacts And Bone Fragments} (Fantagraphics) strings together 200-odd (very odd) pages of sketches, strips, panels, and spot illustrations, assembled into one long nightmare-narrative about two loose-limbed tots wandering through a village of lusty killers and bleeding trees. There are no explanations here, and few conventional payoffs—just images designed to remind readers what it was like to be a panicked, paranoid child, convinced that every nighttime shadow contained a beast more menacing and repulsive than any grown-up could conceive… B+

Superman and Batman began teaming up regularly in World’s Finest in the 1940s, and then Batman embarked on a series of team-ups with other heroes in the ’60s in The Brave & The Bold, so in some ways it’s surprising that it took until 1978 for DC to stick Superman in a regular non-Batman team-up series. Although after reading the 26 stories in Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents—Superman Team-Ups Vol. 1 (DC), the foot-dragging might not be such a surprise. The problem with Superman as a team-up partner is that he doesn’t really need the help of, say, The Metal Men or Red Tornado. (Truth be told, he doesn’t really even need Batman much, though the relationship between those two characters is compelling enough to make most World’s Finest stories worth reading.) And it doesn’t help that DC Comics Presents came along toward the end of The Bronze Age, when superhero comics were starting to lose the stabs at relevance and willful oddity that began in the late ’60s. These stories are slick and professionally assembled (by such writers as Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Steve Englehart), but their main selling point is the art (handled mostly by either Dick Dillin or Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez), which still has that appealing post-Neal Adams zazz. Without those flashes of style, DC Comics Presents would be thoroughly average, competently produced rack-filler… C+

After only two years as a professional comic-book artist, Mike Grell got DC’s okay to helm his own series as an artist and writer: The Warlord, about an Air Force pilot stranded in a hidden world in the center of the Earth. Showcase Presents: Warlord Vol. 1 (DC) contains the first 28 issues of Grell’s series (plus the First Issue Special that set it up), and it’s an assured piece of fantasy storytelling, drawing on all the way-out science-fiction and fantasy elements that were the stuff of rock album covers and van-side paintings circa 1975. In a way, The Warlord makes a nice companion piece to Avatar, in that it follows an American military man into a place of wonders, and shows how he strives to adapt. James Cameron has said that Avatar is the kind of movie he dreamed about when he was a 15-year-old boy. The Warlord is the kind of comic that 15-year-old boy would’ve loved… B

The “Graphic Classics” series has devoted volumes to the likes of Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, and Jack London, and yet the unlikely Graphic Classics Vol. 18: Louisa May Alcott (Eureka) works just as well as those more genre-bound books, perhaps because Alcott wrote her share of fantastical short stories alongside her better-known domestic melodramas. The book opens with a fine 50-page adaptation of Little Women, scripted by Trina Robbins and illustrated by Anne Timmons, but even more remarkable are the fairy tales, gothic horror stories, comic fables, and lurid romances that make up the rest of this volume. They’re the kind of stories Little Women’s Jo March would’ve written, and as illustrated by top-flight cartoonists like Mary Fleener and Shary Flenniken, they offer a fuller understanding of who Alcott was than the average American lit class… A-

Does anyone else have crossover fatigue? If not, try the first issue of The Siege. An event being trumpeted as seven years in the making, it brings together a lot of strands from other big Marvel crossovers—Civil War, Dark Reign, etc.—and features the fine pairing of writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Olivier Coipel. Yet this first issue reads like a cumbersome contraption meant to make sure all the plot points hit their marks to maximize interaction with other titles. The plot: Norman Osborn decides to take over Asgard, now hovering over the Midwest. Bendis’ voice gets mostly lost in the machinations. There’s a lot of setting up of future developments that promise high superhero drama and threaten to, sigh, change the Marvel universe forever. But can we just get to the other side of these big events and put them behind us for a little while?… C+

First, the obvious: The Five Fists Of Science (Image) owes a lot to Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Using historical figures for pulp stories isn’t something Moore patented (especially since his book sticks mostly with fictional icons), but given Fist’s stylized packaging and tone, it’s easy to dismiss the trade as a pale copy of the real thing. This would be a mistake. While writer Matt Fraction doesn’t blaze new trails, his story of a penniless Mark Twain urging Nikola Tesla to use his science to simultaneously profit and save the world is surprisingly charming; Twain’s one-liners are convincing, Tesla’s quirks are lovingly captured, and villains like Thomas Edison and John Pierpoint Morgan are, if not exactly realistic, at least colorful enough to be effective. Steven Sanders’ art is occasionally murky, but it captures the action well, especially the fights between Tesla’s gigantic metal automaton and a series of electronic demons he also created. The moral ambiguity, and at least a passing knowledge of Twain’s personal philosophy, elevates the book above knock-off level. The ending is too abrupt, and some of the characters are given short shrift (the female lead seems to exist largely because this sort of thing needs a female lead), but this is a fun, breezy outing that does the genre proud… B+

In the introduction to Nightmare World Volume One: Thirteen Tales of Terror (Shadowline), writer Arvid Nelson explains how difficult it is to tell a short story in comics. The collection of minis that follow this pronouncement, all written by Dirk Manning and illustrated by a variety of artists, thoroughly prove Nelson’s thesis. But while it’s easy to understand why eight pages don’t provide enough time to introduce narrative, mood, and character, it’s hard to figure out why anyone would spend so much effort and talent to demonstrate the ease of failure so definitively. Nightmare World has Lovecraft pastiches, references to Celtic myth, splatter, T&A, cyberpunk, and irony, but what it doesn’t have is a reason for existing. Its stories move between dully predictable and baffling, and none of them provides much that’s scary. The art is generally solid, which makes it frustrating, but even the frustration doesn’t last long. It’s the sort of book that finds its way into bargain bins a week after it hits the shelves, and even at a discount, manages to be overpriced…C-

By now, nobody’s surprised to see the bullets-and-broads approach of the average detective novel repurposed by modern authors, and a private dick lost in a science-fiction world has been done so many times, it’s almost hard to remember when it wasn’t a cliché. So Electropolis: The Infernal Machine (Dark Horse) has an uphill battle from its very premise: a robot named Menlo Park, programmed for sleuthing by a murdered gumshoe, struggles to solve his boss’s death, in a Metropolis inspired landscape, against the usual array of femme fatales and dough-faced thugs. Worse, Dean Motter’s art is too sloppy to really distinguish the same old steps. Motter is much better as a writer, though, and while Electropolis’s reach exceeds its grasp, the seemingly simple story takes on dimensions as it goes, much as the characters do. The existential crises of a machine that believes itself to be a down-on-his-luck sad-sack has potential, and the care Motter shows in developing Park’s associates makes the book harder to dismiss. Add to that a clever use of electronics and a love of puns, and Electropolis winds up a little better than it had any right to be… B-

“I don’t know who you think I am or what the hell my problem is,” Zak Sally writes in the extensive notes at the end of his anthology, Like A Dog (Fantagraphics), “or even why you should spend your money on it or your time reading it.” But his comics aren’t nearly so self-deprecating. On the contrary, Like A Dog—a collection of Sally’s self-published Recidivist comics, plus odds and ends—drips warped fantasy, bleak humor, and experimentation. Dynamically, the book also veers from being text-heavy to eerily wordless, even as it maintains the integrity of Sally’s stunning, stark-yet-lush linework. The inconsistency (in tone and subject, if not quality) is the result, as Sally says in his notes, of trying to produce comics while he was the longtime bassist for Low, one of the most acclaimed, influential indie-rock bands of the last 20 years. So, in a sense, Like A Dog is indeed autobiographical, if you read between the lines—although one of the book’s stories, “Room 21,” is a terse, creepy piece about sexual awakening that’s either impeccable short fiction, or hair-raising memoir. As a bit of background to Sally’s ongoing Fantagraphics series, the gorgeously horrific Sammy The Mouse, Like A Dog is a compelling slab of graphic narrative. As a warts-and-then-some chronicle of one man’s navigation through the world of underground comics (not to mention his own self-sabotaging psyche), it’s downright mesmerizing… A-