June 12, 2009

 

When All-Star Superman finished its run after what seemed like decades of waiting, plenty of critics were more than willing to add Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s maxi-series to the pantheon of the greatest Superman stories ever told. More than a few, though, weren’t satisfied; what could this team, they clamored, do with Batman? An answer to that question began to take shape this month when Morrison and Quitely rolled out Batman And Robin (DC), and so far, the answer has been “a hell of a lot.” Faced with the unwelcoming task of introducing a brand-new version of the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder (in the persons of Dick Grayson and Damien Wayne) to a notoriously change-averse audience, they accomplished the transition by giving the two characters personalities that are distinctive but recognizable, easing into the new order by inches rather than by leagues. The main difference between this and All-Star Superman is that Batman And Robin is an in-continuity series, so the creators are rebuilding the mythology one block at a time; this isn’t just a commercially savvy move, it’s a good fit with Morrison’s signs-and-wonders style of writing. As for Quitely, he continues to improve with every book he pencils, and the intriguing new villains of the series, the Circus Of Strange, are a perfect fit for his loose, kinetic look. It’s a pity he’ll only be around for the first handful of issues, but as long as Morrison can keep up the gradual but perceptible change, this should remain on the pull list of any superhero fan… A-

Webcomics have been a seriously mixed bag since their inception, and for every Achewood, there are two dozen shabbily drawn, incoherently written strips about videogames or anime. That’s why it’s all the more impressive when a talent like Kate Beaton emerges. The young Canadian artist has turned a history degree into a non-stop laffs-generating machine, as her book Never Learn Anything From History (TopatoCo) illustrates; the great leaders, military figures, artists, and philosophers of the past are her usual subjects, but they’re usually portrayed as consumed by petty ego and expressing themselves in the freewheeling, dismissive argot of snotty adolescents. Add to that a keen sense of the absurd (in her footnotes, Beaton herself cannot explain why a weeping Napoleon stuffing his face with cookies while Josephine carries on a wild affair is so damn funny, but it is) and you’ve got a book full of comics that are generally hilarious even for those who don’t fully recall the history behind the stories. Beaton’s art is likewise impressive; her neat linework and terrific grasp of simple caricature and facial expression sells a lot of the best strips, including Sasaki Kojiro meeting an undignified end, Jane Austen and Nikola Tesla being pestered by their fans, and Lord Byron muttering “Bitches, man” to a grieving Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her occasional non-historical comics (featuring mermaids, Tintin, and an evil Shetland pony) are likewise winners, and if American audiences don’t quite get the jokes behind her strips about Stompin’ Tom Connors, Newfoundland, and John G. Diefenbaker, at least they might learn something about Canada from reading them… A-

Given that the three stories contained in Gene Luen Yang’s anthology The Eternal Smile (First Second) all have essentially the same twist, it might be fruitful to read them at long intervals instead of all back-to-back. Taken on their own, each one is a melancholy little gem, though the biggest punch comes from the final story, “Urgent Request,” about a shy girl with such a sad and lonely life that she starts sending a Nigerian scammer all her money in an attempt to forge even the slightest of connections. As with all three stories, there’s a twist that has to do with escapism and voluntary reality, but in this particular case, Derek Kirk Kim’s rounded, toy-like characters and children’s-book visual simplicity give an extra softness to a story that might otherwise be too brutal to stomach. Kim illustrates the other stories in remarkably different styles—“Duncan’s Kingdom,” about a would-be warrior in love with a princess, gets a richer and more detailed look, while the title story draws from old-school Disney comics style for a story about an Uncle Scrooge-inspired, miserly, rich frog who sets out to scam his neighbors with a made-up religion. That title story is both the broadest and eventually the weirdest of the bunch, but all three are polished and poignant, and Yang—the Eisner-winning writer of American Born Chinese—shows a remarkable deftness with emotion whether he’s scripting a disintegrating societal reject or a greedy cartoon frog. Kim proves equally accomplished with his range of styles and his sharp lines and colors, which recall the selection of work on display in any one of the volumes of Flight. Taken as three variations on a single theme, this is an elegant experiment, but taken as three independent stories that find their own footing in striking ways, it’s much closer to marvelous… A-

In spite of the best hopes of legions of nostalgia hounds in advance of the upcoming big-screen version of G.I. Joe, the 1980s iteration of the classic toy didn’t exactly produce a lot of top-tier culture. The dolls (sorry, action figures) were a tiny, ill-equipped imitation of the ’60s original, and the TV series was generally pretty poor, if a step above other cartoons-as-commercials. One of the few good things that came out of it was the Marvel Comics series; under the supervision of Larry Hama, it was surprisingly background-rich and character-driven for what was essentially a marketing tie-in. There’s nothing noble about the re-release of these comics in the G.I. Joe: Best Of Graphic Novels (IDW); they’re trying to score a buck off the movie release just like any number of Chinese toy manufacturers. But for those who never got a chance to read Hama’s stuff when it was new, this is a good introduction, and edited in a way that cuts out a lot of the dross. The Best Of Duke came out last week, and The Best Of Destro followed this week; they’re lean, glossy reprints that serve as a reminder that tie-ins don’t have to completely suck. With a few more to come (including The Best Of Snake-Eyes, Hama’s best work) before the movie’s release, this is a good time to see what the fuss, minor as it may have been, was about… B

Though he rarely gets the credit of a comics mogul on the level of Stan Lee, I’d be hard to find a figure more important to the history of the medium than Harvey Kurtzman. In addition to his own unimpeachable work as a cartoonist, satirist, writer, and creator responsible for everything from Mad magazine and “Little Annie Fannie” to “Goodman Beaver” and a handful of unforgettable war comics, he was also a savvy businessman, a highly skilled editor, a pure idea man, and an ace spotter of talent, having kick-started the careers of everyone from Robert Crumb to Terry Gilliam. The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics (Abrams ComicArts), overseen by Kitchen Sink’s Denis Kitchen, is the first fully authorized collection of his work, and at just over 250 pages, it’d be worth buying at twice the price. Most of Kurtzman’s pioneering work is here, as well as plenty of material that makes it clear to anyone who came to it late how subversive and hilarious the early days of Mad really were. There’s also tons of unreleased work, some of it excellent, along with archival material, behind-the-scenes stuff, deleted panels from classic comics, rare photos, biographical information, and even a great introductory essay by Harry Shearer. Think of it as a must-have title in comics’ own Criterion Collection… A

Hard as it is to believe, back in the pre-Internet days, comics fans had to look far and wide to get high-quality snark about their favorite superheroes. Before the web made snotty jokes about goofballs in capes as common as penis-enlargement spam, there was really only Fred Hembeck, and even he was hard to find. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise when insane genius Keith Giffen and marginalized goofball Robert Loren Fleming teamed up to create Ambush Bug, a vehicle for their extremely funny observations on the absurdity of DC Comics. It was even more surprising that the character’s adventures actually appeared in DC Comics. Showcase Presents: Ambush Bug Vol. 1 (DC) collects almost every appearance of Ambush Bug from his early-’80s heyday until today. The plots are usually perfunctory to an absurd degree (a four-issue arc promises a big battle between Ambush Bug and Darkseid, only to end with A.B. letting the air out of an inflatable doll of the Lord of Apokalips), but the gags are pretty solid, and their way of highlighting the often-ridiculous nature of comics—which ranged from the Bug’s tour through some of the more bizarre moments in DC continuity, like the record-eating Glop and the Heavenly Helpmates to the introduction of “Jonni DC, Continuity Cop,” still holds up today. Held together by Giffen’s terrific artwork, some well-planned guest appearances, and the creators’ willingness to mock themselves over anyone else, this ought to find a new audience of people who wish comic books were more comical… A-

The suddenly very busy Seth turns in yet another stellar design job with Melvin Monster (D&Q), the first entry in the new “John Stanley Library” series. Stanley was a writer-cartoonist best known for turning Marjorie Buell’s comic-strip heroine Little Lulu into a full-fledged comic-book star, with a supporting cast and an environment far more fleshed-out than what Buell conceived. (Stanley was to the Little Lulu property what Carl Barks was to the Walt Disney Corporation’s Donald Duck.) In the ’60s, Stanley spearheaded a string of short-lived original titles for Dell Comics, combining popular concepts with his own warped, deadpan sense of humor. The nine-issue Melvin Monster series was in the Munsters/Addams Family vein, with a touch of “Tales From The Bizarro World.” The title character is the lone well-behaved, studious creature in Monsterville, where mischief and mayhem reigns. The first two of the three issues collected in “The John Stanley Library” are almost Moomin-like in their stream-of-consciousness storytelling and gleeful, gag-oriented surrealism, while the third issue is more a series of vignettes. Often, hardbound editions of kid-friendly comics come off as overdone and overpriced, but while Melvin Monster could be a little fatter—especially when compared to Dark Horse’s Little Lulu collections, which contain double the material at a lower price—Seth’s children’s book-like design gives the collection a context, making it feel like the kind of artifact a kid would find at a small-town library sale, or on a grandparent’s bookshelf… A-

Not quite as successful, but perhaps more charmingly ambitious, is Joe Kelly’s kids’ book Douglas Fredericks And The House Of They (Image), a hardcover picture book aimed at fans of Berkeley Breathed’s picture books, with their outsized, manic whimsy and rich but strongly cartoony art. The titular Douglas Fredericks—a pint-sized version of Frederick Douglass—is a precocious genius who invents things like flying gear for camels and a city-sized, self-reproducing cake. Problem is, the mythical “They” keep getting in his way, with hoary old phrases like “You know what They say, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” So Fredericks decides to seek out They and give them a piece of his mind. Joe Kelly has written sharper, more trenchant material about beleaguered kids dealing with eerie unknowns—the ongoing Four Eyes and the recently collected I Kill Giants leap to mind—and this isn’t much more than a loopy bit of fun with a broadly uplifting moral message for the young. But the art, by Ben Roman and colorist Jorge Molina, is suitably creepy at times, particularly when it comes to the conception of They themselves. Overall, the book feels a bit like a G-rated version of Judd Winick’s Barry Ween comics—frivolous and funny, but without much edge. The Breathed acid test is probably the best gauge, though—fans of his books should check this out, and non-fans should just keep moving… B

Speaking of Barry Ween, Oni has re-released all 12 issues of Winick’s hyper, hilarious series about a foul-mouthed, super-precocious mini-mad-scientist as The Big Book Of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, under a surprisingly bland cover that doesn’t even hint at the mania within. The whole series has a cobbled-together, made-at-home feel, with controlled but slightly self-conscious art that feels more careful than spontaneous. But the scripting is terrific. Barry Ween himself is a few steps closer to reality than, say, the star of Dexter’s Laboratory—his mild preoccupation with porn comes up more than once, though his understanding of and disgust with other people’s sexual proclivities is equally ahead of his years—but he lives in the same sort of four-color bizarro universe, where a friend who touches the wrong experiment might turn into a giant purple dinosaur, and the appearance of a giant psychic gorilla isn’t a surprise so much as a mildly irritating distraction. What makes Barry Ween remarkable, though, is its honest emotion—Barry’s affection for his friends, regardless of their normal-to-below-normal intellects, his desperation when things go wrong for them—and the way it smoothly integrates that emotion with outsized comedy. The Barry Ween stories just got better and more accomplished as they progressed, and this collection will not only let newbies track Winick’s progression as a writer and an artist, it’ll let them join in on wishing for more Barry Ween… A-

There’s a wealth of strong material in the puckishly self-descriptive Syncopated: An Anthology Of Nonfiction Picto-Essays (Villard). Contributor-editor Brendan Burford invited an eclectic group of cartoonists to come up with short pieces that are journalistic, biographical, or opinionated in nature. Highlights include Rina Piccolo’s well-researched history of the postcard, Josh Neufeld’s two-page tour through the various father figures in his life, Alex Holden’s look at the early years of New York’s graffiti-art movement, Greg Cook’s harrowing illustration of a Guantanamo interrogation, Nate Powell’s depiction of an early-20th-century Oklahoma race riot, and Alec Longstreth’s recounting of the struggles of typewriter-keyboarding pioneer August Dvorak. Reading Syncopated is like thumbing through an especially well-edited general-interest magazine like Harper’s or Atlantic, and finding a new conversation piece on nearly every page… A-

In 1986, photographer Didier Lefèvre traveled to Afghanistan to document Doctors Without Borders’ efforts to bring medical care to people caught in the crossfire in the war between the Soviets and the Mujahideen. He traversed the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan—sneaking across the border at night—and watched as the MSF people made deals with warlords and tried to navigate the customs and cultural demands of people in the process of turning to religious fundamentalism. The Photographer (First Second) combines Lefèvre’s pictures and memories with illustrations by Emmanuel Guibert, all assembled and laid out by designer Frédéric Lemercier. The photos and illustrations are stunningly stark, and Lefèvre maintains a sense of humor about the primitive conditions that makes The Photographer immediately engaging. Even more remarkable are the depictions of the many incidents in which Lefèvre was completely unsettled, stuck in an alien landscape while surrounded by people with different values and expectations. Lefèvre, Guibert, and Lemercier convey all this simply and effectively, crafting a book that captures a time and place as precisely as it recounts the adventure that took place there… A-

The story progression on Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen is so damn slow, with each issue generally cramming in a couple of brief slivers of separate ongoing stories, or equally brief stand-alones, that really the only proper way to appreciate it is via massive collections like Elephantmen: Fatal Diseases (Image), which collects issues #8 to 15 plus Elephantmen: Pilot into one chunky, glossy hardcover. Even so, the entire series is more about atmosphere and world-building than any sort of coherent story. The art, by a who’s-who collection of contributors, is generally fabulous, all steamy noir atmosphere, striking color-keyed pages, and rich, warm, fractally complicated textures, and the characters—mostly genetic meldings of man and animal, in a post-apocalyptic world where they’re only barely accepted—are all strong archetypes with instant appeal, but they never seem to be doing much of consequence. There’s a lot of filling in background details, sighing at the monstrous injustice of the Elephantmen world, and waiting around for things to happen, but one late-book development seems to be par for the course: Pages and pages are devoted to establishing the horrible power of a disease that disintegrates its victims into fungus within seconds, and much breast-beating is focused on a key character’s accidental exposure and imminent, unpreventable death. Then the whole story abruptly comes to nothing, and the book moves on to dozens of pages of concept art, covers, sketches, pin-ups, supplemental material, and cutesy side stories. The emperor’s new clothes are absolutely gorgeous, but there doesn’t appear to be any actual emperor within them. C+

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