July 30, 2010

As far back as the first Scott Pilgrim graphic novel in 2004, writer-artist Bryan Lee O’Malley clearly had a destination in mind. Twelve hundred pages later, that journey finally ends with book six, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour (Oni). And although it isn’t literally the series’ finest hour, it is a fitting and entirely epic finale. Picking up where book five’s cliffhanger left off, Finest Hour finds Scott—now 24, depressed, addicted to videogames, and pining away for his lost love Ramona—struggling to come to terms with his yearlong battle against Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends. Only one such villain remains: the suave, slimy Gideon Graves. As Scott confronts exes of his own and starts to come to terms with his own pathetic lapses in the relationship department, one of the most charming and affecting qualities of O’Malley’s storytelling shines through: His ability to inject science-fictional hipster soap-opera with flashes of charm, wit, and true poignancy. On a strictly technical level, O’Malley has never been sharper or more evocative. His manga-influenced artwork is a visual feast, his dialogue snaps without stretching, and his layouts and design sense are more inventive and playful than ever. It’s hard not to read a bit of the author into his creation, especially as Scott wistfully revisits the events of the previous five books—even mentioning a volume by number in one of Finest Hour’s silliest bits of fourth-wall breaking. But Scott’s arrested development gets jumpstarted when he faces the most nightmarish of prospects: becoming one of Ramona’s evil ex-boyfriends himself. Finest Hour’s only fault is unfortunately a whopper: Almost half the book is devoted to the gut-wrenching yet hilarious showdown between Scott and Gideon. That may be proportionate to the series as a whole, but it also renders Finest Hour the least freestanding and most awkwardly paced installment. It’s a bittersweet irony that Scott Pilgrim is ending just as its Hollywood adaptation, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, is about to be released—and, of course, it remains to be seen whether O’Malley’s hyperkinetic, reference-packed storytelling will translate well to the big screen. Regardless, Finest Hour is a worthy and satisfying, though somewhat rushed, culmination of one of indie comics’ funnest rides… B+

In his introduction to the $2 one-shot The Man With The Getaway Face (IDW), writer-artist Darwyn Cooke describes it as an “underpriced bitch-slap.” He’s more or less right: The concise 24-pager is intended as a teaser for Cooke’s upcoming The Outfit—a graphic-novel version of Richard Stark’s classic crime novel, and the follow-up to Cooke’s previous Stark adaptation, The Hunter. With Getaway, Cooke illustrates what he considers one of Stark’s lesser Parker stories. And yet he handles that iconic character—a coldhearted, brutally calculating, yet perpetually downtrodden career criminal—with a deft sensitivity and quiet reserve that drive home just how existentially empty Parker’s heist-to-heist life is. After getting a new face from a plastic surgeon in order to evade the mob, Parker scares up a sketchy armored-truck job with a couple of old accomplices. Cooke handles Stark’s leapfrog of cause-and-effect as efficiently as Stark handles Parker’s scheme-within-a-scheme, even though the big payoff—the heist scene itself—is depicted in a minimal, yet almost muddled sequence. Cooke’s sleek, polished retro art circa DC: The New Frontier has continued to erode into a hardbitten, grainy, David Mazzucchelli-esque style, and here, his black-and-white-and-drab-yellow artwork is a simply stunning eye-feast. It may be a mere bridge between The Hunter and The Outfit, but The Man With The Getaway Face definitely packs more than a bitch-slap… B+

Though Jonathan Hickman’s writing run on Fantastic Four with artist Dale Eaglesham has only lasted a year (and counting), it’s already one of the long-running series’ best, combining the cosmic adventuring that’s always been an FF strength with some thoughtful reconsideration of the team’s dynamics. Hickman’s stories smack of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison’s homages to the Silver Age, with some of the psychological underpinnings of James Sturm and Guy Davis’ Unstable Molecules, but mostly, it reads as an inventive, involving superhero comic, during a time when those are in short supply. It’s a shame, though, that Fantastic Four Volume One: Solve Everything (Marvel) is such a slim book, covering only the first five issues of the Hickman/Eaglesham era—two of which weren’t even drawn by Eaglesham. At least four of those five issues are winners, with the first three showing Reed Richards joining a council of alternate-reality Reed Richardses in an effort to solve all the universe’s problems, and the last one beginning with a lighthearted birthday celebration and ending with warnings of an imminent apocalypse. But that means the book closes on a cliffhanger, which does a major disservice to potential new readers, especially given that these issues are packaged in Marvel’s usual nondescript trade dress, with no introduction or context of any kind. That’s a shabby way to treat comics this good… B+

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics Art And Culture (MBP) is a bit too haphazard to serve as a standard reference book, and its almost-exclusive focus on contemporary work renders it useless as a general history, but it’s still a must-buy for anyone interested in the incredibly dynamic world of non-mainstream black comics. A series of mini-essays by authors John Jennings and Damian Duffy on various aspects of black comics—the convention scene, the Glyph Awards, the influence of rap culture on comics, the Black Superhero Hall Of Fame, and so on—break up profiles of individual artists. Some are young creators who deserve more attention, like hip-hop-influenced stylist Jamar Nicholas; others are old pros whose work deserves reassessment, as seen in the opening essay on Dawud Anyabwile, creator of the beloved Brotherman. There’s also choice information on manga’s influence on black artists, and a delightful intro by The K Chronicles creator Keith Knight. Finally, like most books from the design-focused Mark Batty Publishers, it’s simply gorgeous to look at… A

There isn’t enough room in this column, or maybe on the Internet, to explain the convoluted history of Marvelman, or the legal troubles surrounding him. Extremely short version: He was a 1950s British extension-under-another-name of the character Captain Marvel, later revived by Alan Moore in the 1980s as a commentary on superherodom. Then the history gets really complicated. Everyone from Neil Gaiman to Todd McFarlane laid claim to Marvelman, sometimes known as Miracleman, in the ensuing decades. Last year, Marvel announced it had bought the rights to the character… kind of. Currently, Marvel only has the rights to the Marvelman and his related characters, while the Moore and Gaiman-penned stories from the ’80s and ’90s remain in legal limbo. Still, Marvel likely intends to exploit the property to its fullest. This month sees the arrival of the one-shot Marvelman Primer and the first installment of the six-issue miniseries Marvelman Family’s Finest. The former is little more than an extended ad for the character, in spite of a brief interview with nonagenarian Marvelman writer Mick Anglo and a once-over-lightly history of British comics. It also contains this ignore-the-sour-grapes-and-don’t-mention-Alan-Moore-by-name statement: “If you only know him from his dark, deconstructionist ’80s revival, then you don’t know the real Marvelman!” Family’s Finest #1 seeks to correct that by reprinting select 1950s adventures. Trouble is, the real Marvelman just isn’t that interesting on his own. The indifferently drawn, Anglo-penned stories have a kiddie-book charm, but it’s pretty thin stuff, more interesting as historical curios—and for the dark, deconstructionist fantasies they inspired—than on their own… Primer: D+; Family’s Finest: B-

Say what you will about Dave Sim, he puts his money where his mouth is. One of the few indisputable success stories of the first wave of independent comics, he’s managed to make a pretty decent living in a field where many people, even those employed with the big publishers, barely get by. Back in 1997, he published a slim, cheap instruction manual detailing how he pulled it off. Now, he’s issued The Cerebus Guide To Self-Publishing Expanded Regular Edition (Aardvark-Vanaheim) with a bigger page count and a vastly inflated cover price (up to $18 from $4). Much of the original material is intact and still sound, which is a good thing, because the updated information should be taken with extreme caution. Sim’s reach has sorely exceeded his grasp in recent projects, and while his understanding of new publishing technologies is essentially sound, his ability to put them into practice is limited by his own prejudices: He refuses to use e-mail or any kind of social networking, and doesn’t maintain any kind of web presence. Readers seeking real-world advice on how to make it in comics are probably better off consulting the original edition; the new one, like much of Sim’s recent work, is tainted by his personal obsessions, of limited value, and too expensive… C

Begun in the early ‘70s as an alternative to the Avengers, the Defenders were always a bit of a mess. With no fixed membership, no guiding principle, and practically no organization, the Defenders were a super-team that Marvel never seemed to know what to do with. But part of that sloppy quality is what made the band of second-stringers so appealing. They had a much more freewheeling approach than their responsible older brothers in the Avengers, and while the result often wasn’t great, at least took chances others wouldn’t. Essential Defenders Volume 5 (Marvel) collects 15 issues from the early ’80s and a few affiliated Marvel Team-Up stories, mostly written by a young J.M. DeMatteis. The ever-shifting artists and inkers are evidence of how little Marvel cared about the title, and DeMatteis took this as a hint that he could go nuts with it. The result is a terribly inconsistent but often daring and never boring collection. The Defenders got even stranger in the mid-’80s, and DeMatteis jumped ship to DC and made his version of the Justice League one of the oddest super-teams ever; this volume is an interesting glimpse at how those two events got started…

For those who haven’t already read it—and who aren’t yet sick of the zombie phenomenon—now is a good time to catch up with Robert Kirkman’s and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead. A high-profile television adaptation is planned for the fall season on AMC, and the title was a big buzz-generator at San Diego, so the release of The Walking Dead Volume 12: Life Among Them (Image) is fortuitously timed. The storyline revolves around the beleaguered survivors of a zombie apocalypse finally reaching Washington, D.C. and its long-promised respite from the constant struggle against the undead for survival. But things are rarely as they seem in this world. Life Among Them is a solid story on its own and a satisfying culmination of what’s gone before; it’s also a good place for newcomers to begin catching up, since it ends with issue #72, and the current issue on the stands is #75. Be warned, though: The good timing is part of a major marketing blitz, and this book is disappearing off the shelves with extreme rapidity. The next volume won’t come out for six more months, so if you’re interested in a generally well-executed zombie story among a glut of crappy cash-ins, hop on board… B+

By this point, few comics fans need to be sold on the value of Planetary, Warren Ellis’ and John Cassaday’s archeological exploration of decaying pulp mythology. Now complete, the full run of Planetary works as a chapter-by-chapter evocation of the grandeur of fantasy-adventure icons, and as the epic tale of one jaded hero’s effort to beat back the people who sullied those icons, in order to restore that grandeur. The now-back-in-print Absolute Planetary: Book One and the new Absolute Planetary: Book Two (Wildstorm) do the series justice, reprinting Cassaday’s gorgeous art on good paper at a larger size, and packaging both books in handsome hardcovers with slipcases. There are few extras here that can’t be found in the original paperbacks, but still, this is the ideal way to experience Planetary—the rare comic that merits the “Absolute” treatment… A 

During the first flowering of underground comix, tiny publishers across the country rounded up local artists and big names from both coasts to put together magazines with provocative titles like Bizarre Sex and Slow Death. Denis Kitchen was one of those underground entrepreneurs, operating Krupp Comic Works and Kitchen Sink Comics out of Wisconsin, while writing and drawing his own gently surreal, lightly satirical comics whenever he found the time. A few of those Kitchen pages have shown up in the odd retrospective of underground comix, but the bulk of his work has been out of print for years, to the extent that Kitchen is now far better known as a businessman (and CBLDF stalwart) than a cartoonist. The Oddly Compelling Art Of Denis Kitchen (Dark Horse) seeks to change that by compiling Kitchen’s spot-illustrations and stories, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s. Kitchen was never the funniest or the most lacerating cartoonist of his generation, but he was one of the best draftsmen, with a style that seamlessly blended classic newspaper cartooning with traces of psychedelia. And The Oddly Compelling Art is a model for how these kinds of anthologies should be handled. Between the lengthy bio of Kitchen in the front of the book and his own notes about his work, there’s little about his life or art left unexplored… A- 

Intentionally or not, Mome #19 (Fantagraphics) is almost a theme issue, with the usual mix of abstraction and autobiography giving way to multiple narrative-driven stories with their roots in genre fiction. D.J. Bryant’s “Evelyn Dalton-Hoyt” and Tim Lane’s “Hitchhiker” anchor the anthology: The former is a sexually explicit story of a mean-spirited woman who infects everyone around her with malice, and the latter is a moody slice-of-life about a broken man who picks up a drifter and shares a moment of revelation. Also of note in this collection: Gilbert Hernandez in his surreal mode, a heady Robert Goodin story about Carl Jung as a boy, and a lushly illustrated Conor O’Keefe piece that’s like a cross between an early-20th-century children’s book and one of Chris Ware’s Quimby The Mouse comics. All-in-all, a solid outing for one of the best (and last) alt-comics anthologies on the market… B+

Heaven only knows why Boom! Studios decided to launch a four-issue anthology miniseries based on the legendary punk club CBGB, but based on the first issue, the idea was a good one. CBGB #1 contains two stories: One, written by occasional rock critic Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Marc Ellerby, offers a brief history of the club; the other, written by Sam Humphries and drawn by Rob G., tells the story of one young punk’s connection to the club via a dead relative. Both pieces are focused in their storytelling and evocative of the CBGB heyday, but the Gillen-Ellerby story has the advantage of Gillen’s scholarship, and his attempts to separate the myths from the facts, while celebrating both. Rock historians and comics fans alike are well-served, and the gorgeous cover by Love & Rockets’ Jaime Hernandez doesn’t hurt… A-

“I am a deranged, delicate genius,” says Headcase Harry in the third panel of the one-shot Officer Downe (Image), Joe Casey and Chris Burnham’s ode to detached retinas, decapitations, and the use of hilariously over-the-top force in maintaining the peace. The supercrank-pushing villain is self-aware, but he’s also pragmatic: The faster the bad guys announce their roles, the faster the titular peacekeeper can kick down the door, crack some skulls, and read ’em their rights. Whether they’re still breathing at that point is immaterial. Casey and Burnham bring in the grimy intensity (and a few familiar faces) from their previous collaboration Nixon’s Pals, but instead of a downtrodden parole officer to root for, they’ve created a self-narrating supercop who’s been killed and reanimated so many times that he’s more a piece of refurbished machinery than an officer of the law. Burnham’s splashy renderings recall Juan Jose Ryp’s work on No Hero—that is, if Ryp weren’t so uncomfortable drawing intact human faces—and the panels are chockablock with comic in-jokes to tide readers over until the next brainless round of carnage for carnage’s sake… B 
 

Like Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt is a rising comics star whose stories aren’t afraid to meander a bit before delivering their payloads of melancholia and identity-confusion. Hollywood-bait it isn’t, but Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black is set to write and direct an adaptation of Kindt’s sad-Paul Bunyan yarn 3 Story: The Secret History Of The Giant Man. Less surprising would be a reworking ofRevolver (Vertigo)—out now in hardcover—with its clever Groundhog Day-plus-catastrophes setup, which sees unfulfilled party-photo-cropper Sam reliving each day twice. In one version of his life, he’s beset by a conspicuously consumptive girlfriend and toxic levels of boredom; in the other, he’s part of a ratty outfit of apocalypse survivors, trying to churn out a newsletter that makes some sense of an America under coordinated attack by disasters natural and terroristic. Neither Lemire nor Kindt seems to lack for premises, but they share some faults too, and the execution here never entirely lives up to the gripping idea. Kindt makes Sam resourceful enough to carry information from one “world” over into the other, but his transition from unlikeable sad-sack to unlikeable man-of-action isn’t particularly satisfying, and flat-out ugly lettering and a garish peek into a two-tone comic book within the comic book drag down what’s otherwise adequate art. Still, the basic premise is sturdy enough to carry Revolver for most of its 168 pages, and the inclusion of mixed media (which also appeared in 3 Story) and the page-numbers-cum-news-ticker providing mini-narratives is a nice touch that showcases Kindt’s knack for the kind of resourceful thinking that Sam relies on just to get by… B 

The recent run of films, books, and comics obsessed with the Greco-Roman gods continues with Hybrid Bastards! (Archaia), which takes a humorous look at the whole mess: In Tom Pinchuk’s story, Hera gets tired of Zeus’ infidelities yet again, so she slips him a spell that briefly gives him a passionate attraction to inanimate objects. As a god, he has the power to impregnate pretty much anything, so 18 years later, he suddenly becomes uncomfortably aware of his crop of grown-up, punningly named offspring like Corey (half god, half apple), Walter (half god, half brick wall), and Cotton (half god, half laundry pile). The execution is never as bizarre as that terrifically weird premise. Pinchuk gives his anthropomorphic objects distinct personalities and conflicting agendas, then has them running around in a comic, manic story that piles on the energy, but most of the bastards are pretty dim, and their plans never go much further than the next page or two. Fortunately for them, Zeus himself proves pretty incompetent, short-sighted, and incapable of hiring useful minions, so the antics bounce along as they all chase each other around in circles, and eventually into court. The whole thing is pretty lightweight, and while Kate Glasheen’s watercolor pastel art is accomplished and playful, it further softens the edges of an already feathery story. Hybrid Bastards! is a bit ribald for kids, but it could stand to have more going on for adults… C+

Much more into specifics—and even less appropriate for younger readers—is Rob Zombie’s Whatever Happened To Baron Von Shock? (Image), the story of an abrasive sad-sack who briefly hits it big as an Svengoolie-style costumed TV horror-movie host, then has the rest of his life to head downhill. The first issue, chronicling Leon Stokes’ rise to cult fame, is zippy and nervy, and the second issue does it even better, as he crashes and burns. The huge leaps forward in time are jarring, but while Leon’s days of groupie-fucking, copious drugs, and low-rent public appearances are moderately entertaining, it’s more interesting to see what Zombie does with Leon’s subsequent life running a comics-and-toys emporium, taking care of his mildly demented mother, and steaming over the arrogant new kid who’s adopted the Baron Von Shock persona. Not because Leon is a compelling character—he’s a shallow, obnoxious caricature—but because Zombie is so focused on the specificities of dialogue, characterization, and world-building. Leon’s relationship with his mother and his friends is surprisingly complicated, and Zombie makes them all sound more like real people than his comedic show-biz satire premise suggests. (Not terribly surprising, since Zombie has certainly had his own experiences with costumed performance and an exaggerated horror persona.) Donny Hadiwidjaja’s art is often cartoony and just functional, but the attention he pays to Leon’s weary-burnout face and his friends’ idiosyncrasies is admirable, and evokes some sympathy that the writing might not. This kind of devotion to the material on both their parts helps distinguishes an ephemeral bit of fun from a labor of love that’s suitable even for those not immediately grabbed either by Zombie’s name or his premise… B+

Inadvertently or not, long-running comic-book characters often reflect their age. This isn’t exactly a revelatory notion, but it can get weird when characters that clearly belong to one era have to be refitted to belong in the present day. The Toyman really shouldn’t be gritty, or grim, or even all that dark. In the new trade World’s Finest (DC), which collects the first four issues of the title comic (plus a few odds and ends), the goofy gadgeteer has darker motivations, working behind the scenes to put together, well, something. It nearly works. Sterling Gates’ story of near misses and heroes struggling to prove themselves makes good use of some familiar villains, and Toyman provides a solid connection to bring all these strange new faces together. The new origin Geoff Johns provides in the back half of the book aims higher, but its attempts to graft a Killing Joke-esque backstory onto a guy who builds killer action figures is too forced to resonate. Just because every bad guy can be a brutal monster these days doesn’t mean they all should be… B- 

The basic formula of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics has never really changed. Take some esoteric facts about the occult, throw in monsters and an evocative setting, and then let Big Red and his Red Right Hand muddle through the ensuing mess, punching and shooting until the inevitably melancholy resolution. If the results continue to be as good as the latest collection, Hellboy: The Crooked Man and Others (Dark Horse), let’s hope Mignola sticks with it until the end of the world. The title story has Hellboy wandering through the American South, in country made famous by folklorist Wade Wellman; the art by veteran Richard Corben is pulpy and effective, and the tale itself as scary as anything Mignola has ever done. Nothing else in the book works as well, but there aren’t any duds here, and the Crooked Man himself is such a nasty nightmare that the rest of the trade could have been full of blank pages… A 

Superman is a boy scout. Batman is a bastard. When they get together, they have some crazy adventures, and sometimes they fight, but they always come back together, because they’re bestest buddies and the sex is just phenomenal. Okay, maybe not that last bit, but the pairing has become such a staple of both characters’ mythology that anyone expecting Superman/Batman: Finest Worlds (DC) to be anything more or less than competent probably hasn’t been paying attention. The three stories collected here—a retro-con meet-up between Thomas Wayne and Jor-El, an invasion of Justice League Babies, and a power swap between the Dark Knight and Supes that leaves both heroes shaken—never really hit great heights, but they make for a decent read. The final section is the strongest, as a super-powered Batman going mental with his powers makes for a nice change of pace from the usual “Batman always wins” line. The writers too often resort to mirrored internal monologues (Batman: “I hope Superman doesn’t know I think he’s great.” Superman: “I sure hope Batman doesn’t notice how deeply I respect him.”) But hey, broad strokes make for brighter colors. It ain’t exactly art, but there’s lots of punching and heat vision. B