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July 16, 2010

The narration box in a comic book can give readers access to a character’s thoughts, provide exposition, describe a scene, or set a tone. It can have a voice, but generally speaking, that voice isn’t addressing the reader directly, and even when it is, the character responsible never looks out through the fourth wall. In the first issue of Scarlet (Icon), Brian Michael Bendis’ new creator-owned series, the title character is talking off the page to her audience on page two. It’s a bold move. The story so far—about corrupt cops and a woman turned vengeance-crazy—is mostly setup, a heavily stylized backstory ably rendered by Scarlet’s co-creator, Alex Maleev. It has definite possibilities, but a series like this lives and dies on the charms of its lead—and the threat of yet another vigilante killer stalking the comic universe isn’t all that exciting. Scarlet, though, has a certain optimism that sets her apart from her murderous brethren. Using sarcasm and quirk, Bendis clearly wants to create a character who believes she can affect positive change through violence, and having her bring her case directly to readers means making the contradiction inherent in that belief unavoidable. It remains to be seen whether this device will lose its charm, but for now, Scarlet seems like the start of something great… A-

Jason’s latest graphic novella, Werewolves Of Montpellier (Fantagraphics), is one of the Norwegian cartoonist’s slightest, though even a less-essential Jason is a delight unlike anything else on the comics shelf. Starting with the premise of a cat burglar who disguises himself as a wolfman to frighten off his marks, Werewolves Of Montpelier winds its way casually through the thief’s crush on his lesbian neighbor, and his encounter with a brotherhood of actual werewolves. Those inclined to look for meaning could make a good case for this skimpy 48-pager as a story about people assuming false identities through a mix of circumstance and personal choice, but what Jason’s comics literally mean matters less than the pleasure of their deadpan humor and unexpected twists: His work has been building a whole habitat of crooks, monsters, and adventurers, just so he can explore their minor personal problems. Werewolves In Montpelier establishes yet another inviting corner of Jasonworld… B+

Reboots! Revamps! Rethinkings! They’ve been fixtures of comics since comics began, but we’ve been flooded with them lately. Last time out, we reviewed Superman #700, which offered a prologue to J. Michael Straczynski’s ongoing “Grounded” storyline, in which Superman walks across America to better understand the country he’s taken as an adopted homeland. This month brings Superman #701 (DC), where the story begins in earnest and it’s… Well, it certainly isn’t the usual Superman fare. It begins well enough, with Superman fending off questions about being under the influence of red kryptonite, but then embarks on a trudge through Philadelphia in which the Man Of Steel burns down some drug dealers’ houses and tells the neighborhood they shouldn’t allow criminals to live there; advises a man that he has heart problems, then casually walks away; and talks to a suicidal woman on a ledge, using questionable tough-love tactics. Straczynski is an interesting writer, and he’s clearly going for something here with this ground-level, back-to-basics storyline. But his characterization of Superman as a flinty, easily annoyed bully makes it seem like he’s trying to provide fodder for the folks at SuperdickeryC

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the DC Universe, Wonder Woman is also getting a Straczynski reworking. The first look at the character’s new direction arrived in the highly publicized 600th issue of Wonder Woman (DC), and the sliver of a story that saw her reconfigured as a pants-wearing urban-fantasy heroine didn’t seem all that promising, though it’s best to withhold judgment on the experiment until it’s a little further along. But if the pre-revamp stories included here really are the last stories to feature the traditional Wonder Woman—and that’s highly unlikely—they’re a pretty good way to go out. Departing writer Gail Simone and longtime Wonder Woman artist George Pérez deliver a nice valedictory to the old supporting cast (in a story called “Valedictorian,” no less), and Amanda Conner’s Wonder Woman/Power Girl team-up is a lot of fun… B

Oh, and as of the debut of a new Green Arrow series, Green Arrow is now a Robin Hood-like vigilante who lives in an urban forest. Based on the first issue, however, that’s a more-interesting-in-theory-than-practice idea… C+

Still, iffy revamps aren’t necessarily a reason to look backward. Neal Adams helped redefine the look and feel of Batman in the 1960s and ’70s with his shadowy, kinetic, illustrative approach to the hero. Adams returns to Batman, this time as a writer and artist with the 12-issue miniseries Batman Odyssey (DC), and the results, as evidenced in the first issue, are enough to cure anyone of nostalgia. The script is a semi-coherent jumble, and the dialogue even worse, particularly a painful scene in which Batman and Robin engage in theoretically playful banter that sounds like it was written by someone who only vaguely remembers how humans, much less these characters, talk. That might not matter so much if Adams’ art hadn’t undergone a significant uglification over the years. Count the pained expressions and agape mouths, and you’ll hit double digits before the page count does… D+

On the one hand, every new installment in Kazu Kibuishi’s Flight anthology series feels like the return of an old friend; on the other, they may have fallen into a bit of a rut. The latest, Flight 7 (Villard), sees a bunch of returning artists either continuing ongoing stories or just working in familiar ways. Michael Gagné again kicks off the book with a beautifully drawn picture-book story about Rex the fox, though this one backs up and provides words for a change, giving a specific (and very alien) context to previous wordless chapters. It’s nice to finally have some idea what’s going on in his strange world, though this chapter does change the dynamic quite a bit. Kean Soo provides another story about Jellyby the pet monster, though in this case, Jellyby takes a more direct and positive hand in things, for a more satisfying story. Kibuishi himself provides another melancholy but gorgeous snippet, this time about an aerial delivery boy whose job mostly provides the story with an excuse for exciting, risky adventure, though his mental state is much more philosophical and meditative. And so on… anyone who’s read one of the Flight books, which encourage graphic artists to try their hand at comics, knows what to expect by now. The colors are deep and vivid, the art is ambitious and lovely and sometimes experimental, the stories are generally kid-friendly and brief, the pages are meant for wall posters and postcards. A few pieces stand out strongly, like Justin Gerard’s chilling Wind In The Willows-esque horror story about a traveling rat and a killer fish, but most produce a lot of emphatic “That’s so pretty!” and then blur in with the other volumes. None of which is necessarily a bad thing: It just means the series is keeping to high standards… A-

As always, Doug TenNapel’s stories tend to swoop along rapidly and disjointedly, as though he were making it all up as he went along. In graphic novels like Ghostopolis (Graphix), this does have its problems: Events come and go without much impact or justification, as when a character’s superpowers stop working when narratively convenient, then start working again with much exclamation, but no explanation, from all involved. On the other hand, the “making it all up” dynamic lets the story proceed in unpredictable directions and tear along at a fast, adventurous pace, and TenNapel’s creativity is in full force here. The story concerns a boy named Garth, who has an unnamed, incurable fatal disease; before it can become more than a vague worry for him, though, he takes an early trip to the afterlife thanks to the bungling of ghost-hunter Frank (technically, a grizzled member of the Supernatural Immigration Task Force). From there, Garth, Frank, Frank’s ghostly ex Claire, and various other players go tearing around the afterlife, trying to deal with its political problems, in a story that feels like one of Clive Barker’s young-adult novels. It’s full of monsters, chases, surprises, and the kind of colorful characters and dry, pause-filled humor TenNapel brought to solidly entertaining books like Earthboy JacobusPower Up, and Creature TechB+

The indie We Kill Monsters (Red 5) operates on a plane similar to Ghostopolis, rolling out as an adventure where one thing more or less logically follows another, but it’d be impossible to predict the endpoint from the start point. And its strong colors and cartoony but accomplished art recall TenNapel as well; penciler/inker Brian Churilla and co-inker Hilary Barta work with more rounded, softer shapes than TenNapel’s sharp lines, but they share his love of random gross-outs and monstery weirdness, like the character Jake, who ends up with a monster-arm that keeps changing to reflect which monster he’s been exposed to most recently. The story follows Jake and his smarter, sadder brother Drew as they endure a series of monster attacks and try to figure out what’s going on in their small, monster-haunted town; the collected six-issue story arc is a perfectly functional chase adventure and Scooby-Doo-esque mystery, but writers Christopher Leone and Laura Harkcom put a deeper level into it, as Drew considers his responsibility and devotion to his clumsier, monster-infected brother, and tries to balance it with his attempts at outside relationships, especially with flinty bar-owner Vanessa. We Kill Monsters is occasionally goofy in an amiable way, and the fights and flights are well-paced, but it’s most interesting when it gets into the character dynamics that flesh out this particular monster case into something unique… B

Richard Moore has said that he might end his long-running monster-mash series Boneyard with the new Boneyard 7 (NBM), which wraps up with a mild sorta-payoff a bit like the way Futurama wrapped up with Into The Wild Green Yonder: Something fans have been waiting for for a long time finally happens, but not in a way Moore can’t take back if he decides to keep going. Which means it doesn’t feel like a particularly big event, just another day in the life. But maybe that’s as it should be. Boneyard 7 is pretty much a day-in-the-life anyway, with all the usual hallmarks of the series: Abby pines for Michael, who gets himself in over his head with the supernatural, in this case by interfering in a fairy arranged marriage. Sid the skeleton bitches about his lack of love life, Glumph the demon engages in Star Trek fandom and builds a wacky invention, the whole gang shows up for a big fight scene, and… well, Boneyard has a lot of charms, those being the appealing characters, the highly cartoony design, the off-color but always chipper humor, the geeky jokes, and the big anything-goes supernatural adventure. (Also plenty of cheesecake for those who are into it.) But apart from one sequence where Abby seeks an unusual kind of help for the latest rescue-Michael mission, plus that last-minute, last-page “give the fans what they want” moment, nothing here is remotely new, and it feels as though Moore is tired of this setting and going through the motions. He’s characterized this as maybe a rest rather than an end, and it does seem like he could use the rest… B-

Geez, the ending of the Luna brothers’ two-year, 24-issue series The Sword was pretty damn depressing, huh? For those who missed it in single-issue form a few months back, the series wraps up with The Sword: Air (Image), the fourth paperback collection. (There will no doubt be an omnibus all-in-one edition at some point, but the paperbacks are manageable sizes.) Each book constitutes a chapter in the life of Dara Brighton, a paraplegic who sees her family murdered by supernatural beings, then winds up with her hands on a weapon that heals her and gives her the chance for revenge. The arc encompassed in Air takes the story to a much broader level by involving the entire earth in her fight, but also reduces it back down to basics as she examines the events that got her there. It’s cosmic and personal at the same time, and unflinchingly harsh to boot. One of the greatest things about the Luna brothers’ work (on Girls and Ultra as well, before this series) is that they seem to understand sentiment, given Dara’s ongoing thoughts about her family and how her memories shape her quest, but they never let it get in the way of their story, or let it dictate the terms of where an adventure like this is expected to go… A

Much like Astro City’s recently concluded “The Dark Age” storyline, Kurt Busiek’s oft-delayed Marvels: Eye Of The Camera (Marvel) is full of terrific scenes and ideas that don’t coalesce as well as they should, perhaps because they’ve been gestating for so long that their original inspiration has been dulled. Set shortly after the events of Busiek and Alex Ross’ 1994 miniseries Marvels,Eye Of The Camera follows photographer Phil Sheldon as he deals both with a terminal cancer diagnosis and with his publisher’s request for a sequel to his bestselling anthology of superhero photos. Given Busiek’s own shaky health over the years—and the fact that Eye Of The Camera covers Marvel Comics history from the late ’70s to the early ’80s, just before Busiek became a professional writer—there’s an element of personal reflection to this Marvels that is, at times, deeply moving. But Jay Anacleto’s paintings aren’t as dynamic as Ross’, and Busiek’s reliance on writer Roger Stern to help with the scholarship and the scripting ultimately turns Eye Of The Camera into a sketchy once-over of major moments in Marveldom, from an era when the Marvel continuity began to get ridiculously overstuffed and convoluted. In spite of a strong start and a lovely final chapter, Eye Of The Camera gets mired in untangling the worst aspects of superhero comics’ past, rather than doing what Phil Sheldon is attempting to do with his last years on Earth: explain why these heroes and their stories matter, even at their most aggravating… B

Follow Your Art is more than the title of Roberta Gregory’s new self-released graphic novel. It’s pretty much the manifesto she’s followed over the course of her four-decade career as an alt-comics pioneer. After years in the underground, Gregory broke through with Naughty Bits, becoming one of the most prolific artists on the Fantagraphics roster during its ’90s boom. In spite of a short-lived animated incarnation, Naughty Bits’ crazed, confrontational, yet compassionate energy cooled a bit around the turn of the millennium, when Gregory’s manic mouthpiece, Bitchy Bitch, conceded some space in the comic for the artist’s own autobiographical tales. A few of those latter-day NB strips are reprinted in Follow Your Art, a travelogue in comics form, alongside lots of new material tracing Gregory’s journeys to comics conventions—where she’s a good-natured fish out of water—and abroad. Wordy yet understated, these wry observations and fleshed-out diary entries are brought to life by her typically economic and unfussy cartooning (though some pages are virtually swallowed by text). For those not already into Gregory, Follow Your Art might seem self-indulgent and even banal. For fans, it’ll feel like catching up with a particularly warm and witty old friend over coffee… B

More disturbing than the train car of exsanguinated Nazi war criminals that opens the first issue of BPRD: 1947 (Dark Horse) is the aggressively cutesy, pint-sized Hellboy in pajama bottoms who appears at Professor Bruttenholm’s door a few pages later. That may have something to do with the dueling art styles of twin brothers Gabriel Bá and Fabio Moon, whose thick brush strokes and expressive, cartoony characters work perfectly with Dave Stewart’s alternately muted and lurid color palettes to render a creepy French village or a supernatural bacchanal—but can’t help but suffer by comparison to Duncan Fegredo or Mike Mignola when delivering the carnage. Writer Joshua Dysart assists creator Mignola here on a story that mercifully cuts the professor and his demonic Hummel figurine, Varvara, out almost entirely, as BPRD assembles an early incarnation of the field team in order to track down rogue vampire Baron Konig, who’s still a bit exercised over the events of BPRD: 1946. Though it shoehorns in scenes of Hellboy wolfing down pancakes or happily scanning a comic book, 1947 is a moody, satisfying piece of work that introduces more compelling characters and feels more coherent than 1946, even as it flits between artistic styles and spiritual planes… B+

Though Dame Darcy’s work has long been published by Fantagraphics, one of the world’s foremost purveyors of comics-as-culture, she’s never seemed remotely engaged with the comics world. Ironically, the first 11 issues of her sporadically released pamphlet Meat Cake—collected by FG in a new trade-paperback edition—comprise some of the best alt-comics of the past 20 years. Bearing an intro by comic Margaret Cho and a blurb by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Meat Cake is the clear product of an outsider; Darcy’s scratchy, fine-lined, loosely intricate artwork owes a slight debt to Edward Gorey, Victorian illustration, and the more demented wing of the E.C. roster (particularly Graham Ingels), but the dreamy vision and gleefully morbid sensibility are all her. Overall, Meat Cake’s dalliance with folklore, horror, camp, and transcendent bits of autobiography pack more of a poetic punch than the title is generally given credit for—that is, when it’s noticed at all. That said, comics’ supreme outsider, Alan Moore, contributes the story “Hungry Is The Heart” to the book, and the confluence of Moore’s and Darcy’s peculiar gothic hallucinations is no less than chillingly harmonic… A-

There must have been a time when writing a comic about a macabre scribbler whose otherworldly visions begin to creep into the real world was fresh and exciting. Although it revives that cliché of a writer living inside his own stories,The Strange Adventures Of H.P. Lovecraft Vol. 1 (Image Comics) gets a lot of things right. Writer Mac Carter knows Lovecraftian mythology enough to make credible references, and he handles the more mundane drama of Lovecraft’s romantic life with adequate aplomb. Most importantly, though, his work captures Lovecraft’s prolix, baroque voice convincingly well through first-person narration that runs just shy of absurdity. But by the end of the volume—which collects all four issues of the miniseries—it’s clear that Carter’s grasp of his subject doesn’t extend beyond the obvious. The book is fun enough, and Tony Salmons’ art is effectively freaky (although the sketchiness can make some action sequences appear muddled), but Carter never really gets beyond his first act. Add the tedious suggestion—which seems to be par for the course with this kind of work—that genre writers all have direct, real-world inspiration for their work, and it’s a pleasant diversion for fans with moderate expectations… B

Since before comics were even called comics, many genres in many nations have been used for propaganda purposes. Out of sheer necessity, Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History (St. Martin’s/Griffin) limits itself to examples from the last century. But within that framework, the book touches on almost every variety of propaganda imaginable: race, war, sex, drugs, politics, religion, and the overall enforcement of social norms. Aside from the awesome amount of material author Fredrik Strömberg marshals, the strong point of is his ability to demonstrate that even comics we think of as noble are essentially little more than propaganda. For instance, people may be conditioned to think of comics with an anti-racist viewpoint as advocacy, not propaganda, but Strömberg (who also penned the useful but obscure Swedish Comics History earlier this year) reminds readers that those people are fooling themselves. Even pro-tolerance public-service ads featuring Spider-Man and the X-Men can be framed in terms of propaganda. Strömberg connects the dots; for instance, the infamous, evangelical pamphleteer Jack Chick, who gets plenty of coverage here, was inspired to begin cartooning when he saw how effective Chinese communists were at spreading their message via comics. But the sheer breadth of work here is stunning: racist World War II Terry And The Pirates strips, 1913 pro-suffrage panel strips from the UK, and 1930s Japanese children’s comics about tank warfare all form part of the presentation. Strömberg misses a few facts—for instance, he identifies Cerebus creator Dave Sim as American—and the small size of some of the reproduced comics pages makes them difficult to read. But otherwise, Comic Art Propaganda is a fascinating piece of work… B+

Italian writer-artist Andrea “Casty” Castellan follows in the footsteps of Floyd Gottfredson and Romano Scarpa with the grand adventure Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse And The World To Come (Boom), a four-issue miniseries now collected in trade paperback. The story has Mickey encountering a giant robot and covert government agents who lead him to the remote country of Illusitania, where a benign ruler is having his plans for a utopian future usurped by villains. Mickey Mouse And The World To Come takes too long to build up momentum, but once Casty gets Mickey to Illusitania and the king’s vision is explained, the story becomes a full-bore action epic with imagination to spare. If nothing else, it’s worth buying this book just to encourage all concerned to make more like it… B 

Just as fans of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics often refer to Carl Barks as “the good duck artist,” Dan DeCarlo is the man who gave the Archie comics line its distinctive look, establishing a style in the ’60s that split the difference between cartoony elasticity and subtle human poses. (Plus he had a keener fashion sense than just about any other artist in the Archie stable.) The comics in the hardbound Archie: The Best Of Dan DeCarlo Vol. 1 (IDW) are so entertaining and lovingly reproduced that it seems ungrateful to complain about the package, but at only 150 pages—and with no contextual material outside of a one-page bio and two pages of credits—this book isn’t all it could be. It’s as though IDW tried to keep the price down for the sake of Archie’s younger fan base, even though those kids won’t have the same level of interest in DeCarlo’s work that an older fan would have—the sort of older fan who’d gladly pay more for a bigger, better-researched collection. Still, it’s hard to dispute the quality of the contents here: kid-comics and middle America alike have rarely looked as vital as they did when rendered by Dan DeCarlo. A-