January 29, 2009

 

What better way to celebrate the dawn of a new era in American politics than with some hastily assembled funnybooks? This month saw the release of a mini-windfall of Barack Obama-related comics, including the Presidential Material Flipbook (IDW), a re-release combining pre-election cartoon biographies of Obama and John McCain; Obama: The Comic Book—Inaugural Edition (Antarctic Press), a straightforward, perhaps a bit too non-partisan biography of the new president by award-winning children's-book author and artist Chris Allen; and The Amazing Spider-Man #583, in which everyone's favorite web-slinger gets a terrorist fist-bump from the new leader of the free world. The latter book has already been the subject of huffy condemnation from a variety of right-wing pundits, so you know it's gotta be good… Flipbook: B; Obama: The Comic Book: C; Spider-Man: B

French writer Olivier Ka looks back at an incident of sexual abuse from his childhood in Why I Killed Peter (NBM), a graphic novel illustrated by Alfred in an eclectic style that moves from cartoony to impressionistic to collage-like. The subject matter may seem grim and a little played-out—especially since Olivier's abuser was a Catholic priest—but Why I Killed Peter isn't as dark or sensationalistic as it sounds. Olivier grew up with two libertine parents, in a household where strangers frequently walked around naked, and where organized religion was considered more of a scourge than drugs. The "Peter" of the title is a cheerful, bearded, roly-poly young priest who enters the social circle of Olivier's family, and becomes a friend and confidant to a boy torn between his parents' anything-goes philosophy and his grandparents' deep faith. Then one night at camp, when Olivier is 12, Peter asks for a massage that turns into something else, and Olivier's attitudes about sex, religion, and trust are subsequently soured. Much of Why I Killed Peter is about how life goes on, even as something as life-altering as molestation affects what comes afterward in ways large and small. Then the book concludes with a stunning sequence where Olivier and Alfred drive back to the summer camp so Alfred can do some sketches and Olivier can come to grips with what happened. Over images that are little more than colored splotches on paper, Olivier recounts his purgative confrontation with his past, and gives hope to anyone haunted by memories of a life that took a few unexpected, unfortunate turns… A-

During a long, fruitful career as an illustrator, Don Freeman produced 20 children's books (including the groundbreaking classic Corduroy) and countless magazine sketches of New York City, from its glamorous theater district to its decrepit slums. But because Freeman was working in the pre-graphic-novel era, he never found a home for his 1955 book Skitzy (D&Q), a kind of picture-book-for-adults about a commuter who divides in two every day when he rides into the city: Part of him heads off to a dispiriting cubicle job, while the other half heads into bohemia to paint nudes. When Freeman self-published Skitzy, the book drew little response, but fans of the kind of open-line drawing that began to dominate design in the mid-'50s should seek out Drawn & Quarterly's nicely packaged hardcover reprint. With no dialogue and only a few quick pen-strokes, Freeman conjures up the business world and the art world of the mid-20th century, and contains both within a quaint, whimsical story. Like the best commercial art of the era, Skitzy is simultaneously simple, sophisticated, and unlabored… A-

Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine's Army@Love series (Vertigo) is going on indefinite hiatus with issue #6 of "The Art Of War." What originally started as a satire on the state of the war on terror seems to be ending at just the right time, with a new president in office and the prison camp at Guantanamo ready to shutter. Perhaps it's just as well; while Army@Love was always a successful book, whipping up a nasty blend of black-as-pitch political comedy and equally dark personal and sexual gamesmanship, it was starting to outgrow its boundaries by the time the "Art Of War" arc came around. Veitch—who long ago left standard storytelling behind and opened up a world of unbounded surrealism with his Rare Bit Fiends dream-journal comic—was beginning to chafe at the restrictions of his own premise, and he brought in reality-warping concepts like the Big Finger to expand his canvas. Whether Army@War is finished or just suspended, he's left us with a good exit strategy, which is more than any of his satirical targets can say… B+

Likewise wrapping up this month is the groundbreaking mystery-noir series by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, 100 Bullets (Vertigo). With only one issue to go, the creative team which has overseen the increasingly intricate series since its inception is pulling out all the stops, as the remaining members of the powerful organization known as the Trust decide to bury the hatchet and make peace. The only problem is, their enforcement arm—the deadly Minutemen—haven't gotten the word, or have decided to ignore it. 100 Bullets has been a roller-coaster ride; when Azzarello decided to take the focus off tight little crime stories and build a conspiracy theory around the basic premise of a suitcase full of bullets and an untraceable gun, it hasn't always worked. But he's stuck with it through thick and thin, and he clearly wants to go out with a shockingly loud bang; Risso's art, meanwhile, is more expressive and dynamic than ever. The end of such a complex narrative is a lousy place for newcomers to hop on board, but those who have been following the series all along aren't likely to be disappointed by the endgame… A-

Working for Marvel hasn't entirely been a good thing for Brian Michael Bendis. Working on so many titles has clearly taken its toll on his writing—he's burnt out and spread thin, and a lot of his characteristic stylistic hallmarks have turned into annoying tics. But at least his employment there will ensure that Powers: The Definitive Collection (Marvel) will get a wider audience than if it had stayed at Image. Powers was very much in the vein of Watchmen, Miracleman, Marvels, and other books that attempted to place superhero stories in the context of the "real world," and more to the point, it anticipated (and, for many, outdid) Bendis' own later work on Alias. Essentially a mash-up of superhero-noir and hard-nosed police procedural, Powers featured a brash rookie cop named Deena Pilgrim teaming up with a taciturn vet named Christian Walker; the two are assigned to high-profile homicide cases involving superhumans, and the drama begins when Pilgrim suspects that Walker has a past with the cape-and-cowl set that he isn't talking about. There's nothing particularly special about the hardcover reprints, but it's a terrific intro to a masterful series, marked by Bendis' memorable rapid-fire dialogue and Michael Avon Oeming's cartoonish artwork, which works surprisingly well in context. Powers' early stories were the best, so the first two definitive collections are the ideal place to get on board… B+

By contrast, the second George R.R. Martin Song Of Ice And Fire adaptation, The Hedge Knight: Sworn Sword (Marvel) is a terrible place to join Martin's work in progress, but for those already steeped in the Ice And Fire world, and still impatiently waiting for Martin to finish the latest installment in his series of novels, it's fairly irresistible. The book (freshly out in trade paperback, after a prestige-hardcover release last year) adapts a novella Martin wrote for the second installment of Robert Silverberg's Legends compilation; it continues the story of the "hedge knight" Dunk and his squire, introduced in The Hedge Knight. Like the novella, it packs in the dialogue and the background to a staggering degree, with fantasy-world martial history that informs the main narrative, but also makes it challengingly dense, except for those accustomed to sorting out all the sides in complicated historical fiction. And like the novella, it keeps readers lured in with a pair of sympathetic characters in a tough situation, sworn to the service of a lord who doesn't necessarily deserve their loyalties, and certainly is ready to pridefully pull them into a likely fatal conflict with a far more powerful neighbor. The characters here are presented in a warmer and more thoughtful way than in the previous installment, and the art is similarly deeper, more richly colored, and more vivid; if the story weren't so thick with backstory, this could almost sit on the shelf next to the Dark Tower books as an adaptation worth delving into just to see how the world looks through the eyes of a talented visual artist. As it is, it's a good second step for fans who've read The Hedge Knight and are ready for a second step into Martin's absorbing, addicting mythos… B+

Part of the fun of flipping through Mike W. Barr's Camelot 3000: The Deluxe Edition (DC) is remembering how shocking and revelatory the original Camelot 3000 12-issue miniseries looked back when it came out in the early '80s: There was smut! Naked people getting it on! A fully clothed lesbian couple getting ready to get it on! Gory violence! Spaceships and swords and 'splosions! It isn't a particularly intellectual title, and amid all the fluffy cosmic weirdness going on in comics in the '70s and '80s, it was pretty prosaic. Its year-3000 take on King Arthur and the ass-kickin' reincarnated knights of the Round Table was more oriented toward straight-ahead storytelling, action, and scantily clad comic-book ladies than the space opera or Jack Kirby broad abstraction that the concept of far-future Arthur-vs.-aliens suggests. The Deluxe Edition holds few surprises for anyone who bought an earlier edition; it's on nice, slick, heavy paper, and it features a few early character and cover concepts and a couple of photos of the creators in the back, but it's no Ultimate Sandman. Brian Bolland's meaty, physical art is still filled out in four-color simplicity, with a kinda-ugly overuse of really bright yellows and very simple shades, but the Morgan Le Fay bad-girl art is still impressive, and this book is a perfect excuse for anyone who hasn't yet enjoyed the visceral simplicity of this cheerfully garish classic … B+

As a mark of how far we've come from the days when a girl-on-girl kiss in comics was eye-popping and controversial, though, compare Camelot 3000 with the long-awaited hardcover collection The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For (Houghton Mifflin), a dense compendium of the long-running indie strip Dykes To Watch Out For by Fun Home author Alison Bechdel. The strip is essentially a domestic drama, similar to work by Howard Cruse and Tim Barela, but Bechdel came first and dug deepest, and this collection is practically a primer to gay and lesbian culture in the '80s and beyond. It comes with a lengthy comic-strip introduction by Bechdel, who talks about her earliest writing days and how they led to the strip; then the book itself starts with the strip's introduction of key characters, and follows a series of plot threads forward. It's the perfect jumping-in point both for newbies and for those who've had problems getting into the story mid-stream, or tracking down the mini-compilations. It's always been hard to find a place to start with DTWOF—like Love And Rockets, it's packed with characters and dense with detail, and the storylines are so multi-threaded that it's hard to keep all the characters straight. And yet the series has always lacked the silliness and sensationalism of soap operas: It's about the mundane details of life for a group of lesbians and their friends, and it focuses far less on sex than on political activism, family life, the clash between ideology and convenience, the difficulties of running a small business, and dealing with good friends who make bad choices. Even when it is about sex, it's about the frustration of trying to get laid inside a small, insular social circle, or on the ways sex stagnates within a long-term relationship. It's real life in comics form, as told by a talented and developing artist over decades, and focused on an underserved community. In short, it lives up to the "essential" in its name… A

The convenient thing about writing multiple comics series on an indie imprint: The freedom to do crossovers whenever you want, without editors dictating what has to happen so none of the titles involved mess with the writers' plans for the others. Given that freedom, though, Robert Kirkman didn't do much with the two-part crossover spotlighted in Invincible #57 and The Astounding Wolf-Man #11. He has to bend both series' parameters a bit even to bring the characters into contact, with Invincible easily agreeing to another assignment from Cecil, the man who manipulated, betrayed, and tried to control him; meanwhile, the Wolf-Man, Gary Hampton, steps away from his training for a while for dubious reasons, in order to put him into contact with Invincible. The upshot is an encounter out of old-school Marvel; the two don't "mistake each other for bad guys" and fight right off (especially since they've met before), but they do quickly wind up fighting, and then fighting off a series of common foes, and then talking a bunch, and then fighting some more, and then going right back to where they started, with little to no apparent impact on either. Kirkman is usually a savvy marketer, but these "special issues" stand as a pretty lame gimmick that doesn't do much for either title, fun as they both usually are… Both: C

Also a disappointment: David B.'s Nocturnal Conspiracies (NBM), which follows his remarkable autobiographical compilation Epileptic in the sense that a toothpick follows a four-course meal. The warning is there in the subtitle, Nineteen Dreams From December 1979 to September 1994; where Epileptic was rich, personal, self-effacing, and challenging, Nocturnal Conspiracies is basically just an illustrated dream journal, with each dream consisting of a few pages of formless narrative, drawn up all in blacks, blues, and grays. There's a certain rhythm to them all, and a certain absorbingly fervent feverishness to the way they're illustrated, but only those seriously enamored of dreams or David B. will find this anything more than an idle, self-indulgent diversion… C-

Much less disappointing: House Of Mystery, the latest Vertigo semi-spin-off set in the world of Sandman, and vaguely informed by its deft mix of surrealism, fairy-tale stories, and grounded real-world characters. The news that Fables' Bill Willingham had largely recused himself from the project before it even launched set the whole thing in doubt—which it was in already, thanks to the ever-growing library of sub-par Sandman outgrowths like The Dead Boy Detectives, The Furies, and Willingham's own Thessaly: Witch For Hire. But House Of Mystery has developed into a solid series alternating weird, poisonous little fables (some of them sadly focused and unnecessary, but you can't have everything) with a fairly intriguing scenario about a mismatched group of people traveling within an apparently sentient, sometimes malicious house. House Of Mystery: Room & Boredom collects the initial issues, giving readers who shrugged the whole thing off when it was first introduced a good opportunity to take a second look, and read enough of the story in a sitting to decide whether the nested narratives are worth keeping up on… B

We promise that at some point we'll stop thinking of cool comics about girls in terms of DC's defunct Minx Comics line, but once again, Faith Erin Hicks' The War At Ellsmere (SLG) makes it hard not to think "If the Minx material had been this good, it wouldn't be defunct." Hicks' thoroughly winning story starts with a scholarship girl coming to a fancy-schmancy private school, where a rich-bitch classmate picks on her. But instead of following the usual arc of a downtrodden girl finding her footing, Hicks starts with her protagonist firmly on her feet: She's actually impatient and unbalanced until one of her upper-crust classmates finally doles out the contempt she was expecting. And then she enters the battle of wits well-armed, well-prepared, and spoiling for a fight. The book never gets better than the first confrontation between them, where the wannabe antagonist gets whittled down to size by an adversary who isn't cowed by prettiness or popularity, but the odd ending is kind of a hoot nonetheless, and the whole thing is a solid, fun spin on the overplayed slobs-vs.-snobs genre… A-

Holy Sh*t! The World's Weirdest Comic Books (St. Martin's) has been out for a while now, but we never got around to reviewing it, largely because it isn't a reading kind of book; it's more a bathroom book, suitable for dipping into briefly from time to time. Nonetheless, it deserves a mention, just because Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury have gone so impressively far out of their way to collect, summarize, and sample such thoroughly ridiculous samples of comic-book oddity. They don't limit themselves to obvious Golden Age weirdness, either: Some of the entries include an pornographic Italian spin on Spider-Man and a Canadian comic about "Super Shamou," the first Inuit superhero. And then there's Godzilla Vs. Barkley, Amputee Love, and Trucker Fags In Denial. Still, the best entries in this 128-page mini-book mostly come from companies trying to self-market via awkward, ill-conceived comics featuring (or anthropomorphizing) their products, from the 1958 Greyhound Bus commercial Driving Like A Pro to A Fortune In Two Old Trunks, a dull documentary-style comic about a prune-grower, as conceived by the California Prune And Apricot Growers Association. In each case, Gravett and Stanbury present cover art, a single key sample image, and a detailed-but-brief description of stories that sometimes seem beyond description. In most cases, it's plenty enough information to provide a giggle or a "Whoa," and then let readers get on with their day. It's light reading, but admirably diverse and eye-catching light reading. B