March 26, 2010

Grant Morrison has a track record of making wild ideas work in even the most mainstream comics titles. His run on Batman, beginning in 2006, has seen the character forced to cope with adversaries and obstacles pulled from long-forgotten corners of Batman continuity, including Damian, a son who showed up with a chip on his shoulder and an off-kilter moral compass. Morrison even killed—or, more accurately, “killed”—Bruce Wayne, leaving a power vacuum in Gotham’s crime-fighting scene. The still-ongoing Batman And Robin series follows erstwhile Robin Dick Grayson as he attempts to assume the mantle of Batman while training Damian to serve as his Robin. The hardcover Batman And Robin: Batman Reborn (DC), drawn by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan, collects the series’ first six issues, in which the new Batman and Robin, neither comfortable in their roles, do battle with a grotesque criminal circus. The adventures are expectedly over-the-top—one villain is modeled after Prince—but the relationship between Grayson, Damian, and Alfred keeps the story grounded with funny, sharp-edged patter. It’s superhero absurdism with a lot of heart… A-

Marvel has chosen 2010 for its “Women Of Marvel” initiative, a yearlong celebration of its female characters and the female creators who have worked for the company over the years. The three-issue anthology series Girl Comics took a lot of understandable flak for its name, but it makes for a fine flagship for the project, bringing in some of the most talented women working in comics to tell stories in the Marvel universe. As with all anthology comics, the first issue is uneven, but the hits outnumber the misses. The variety of stories here—which range from a brutally blunt Punisher story written by Valerie D’Orazio to a brisk, appealingly cartoony entry from Trina Robbins and Stephanie Buscema—put to rest any stereotypes about what sorts of comics women can make, a point made by simply putting a bunch of stories together and letting them speak for themselves. Also nice: tributes to artist Marie Severin and former Marvel receptionist (and current proofreader) Flo Steinberg… B+

Dilemma: How do you respectfully promote those female Marvel characters and artists while still drawing in the fanboys? Women Of Marvel: Celebrating Seven Decades thankfully stays away from the cheesecake shots, though it’s still largely disposable. Bland puff pieces aside (was “America’s Next Top Mutant Model” really necessary?), the magazine is notable for an entertaining interview with Marvel editor Jeanine Schaefer about Girl Comics and its goals, and for a handful of full-color reprints, including the origins of Black Widow and She-Hulk, and the Uncanny X-Men where Storm fought Cyclops for team leadership. The comics themselves look great, though the selection is on the random side. But apart from some mild re-writing of history, this is inoffensive, inessential stuff. Women in comics don’t need hagiographies so much as writers who won’t use them for shock value… B-

For those who don’t know, a mini-comic is a few standard sheets of paper, photocopied with text and artwork (usually at the Kinko’s where a buddy works), and then cut, collated, folded, and stapled into a little booklet. Sounds innocuous, right? But in the late ’70s, a generation of cartoonists too young for the original underground-comix boom (and inspired, to some degree, by the emerging DIY ethic of punk) spontaneously formed a movement now called newave. Newave! The Underground Mini Comix Of The 1980s (Fantagraphics) is a small but substantial celebration of the movement, an era during which creators let their ids run riot on the page without worrying about sales, censors, editors, or an audience. Many newave mini-comics had print runs as low as a dozen or so, while others became relative bestsellers; in Newave!, one of the form’s pioneers, Michael Dowers, has edited a gorgeous, utterly essential document of these artifacts, a thick-as-a-fist tome full of stark, crude, obscene, nihilistic, and at times genius comics. Everything from grotesque pornography and freeform surrealism to pop-culture parody and post-hippie rage dwell within, and each turn of the page is a delightful new assault on the visual cortex—not to mention propriety. Along with pioneers like Clay Geerdes and Tom Hosier, many creators featured here would go on to play a part in the alternative-comics boom of the ’90s—including Rick Geary, J.R. Williams, Dennis Worden, Sam Henderson, and Mary Fleener, whose work seems to have sprung fully formed from the ass-end of a Xerox machine. Interspersed with brief interviews with the artists, the compact Newave! is not only an ideal package for such an anthology, it’s done an immeasurable service to the comics medium as a whole. Beyond that, it also just might realign your synapses… A

Mini-comics, of course, survived the ’80s, and one of the creators who helped keep the form alive is John Porcellino. Since 1989, his lovingly handmade King-Cat Comics has been a mainstay of (and inspiration to) the self-publishing world. His work began popping up in trade paperbacks via various publishers a few years ago, but the mini-comic has always been Porcellino’s main creative outlet, and his latest collection, Map Of My Heart (Drawn & Quarterly) draws from King-Cat’s fertile mid-period of 1996 through 2002. What makes it so special is the transition it encompasses; in ’96, the series was still morphing from a ragged yet contemplative autobio comic into far more placid and spiritual work. As the strips in Map trek further into Buddhist tranquility, a spacious sadness emerges: These are still stories drawn in simple, clean lines that sketch out Porcellino’s everyday worries and experiences, but by the end of the book—including an extended section about the death of his cat, an event that feels symbolic of so much more—that calm has grown into a quiet, emotional storm… A-

The sexual predilections and all-around oddness of Wonder Woman’s feminist creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, have been dissected ad nauseam over the past few decades, especially as pop-culture critics acquired a gleeful lust for ripping apart its own icons. The bottom line, though, is this: Wonder Woman was and is a symbol of female power, and one of the most compelling, enduring superheroes ever created. And now that DC’s pricey The Wonder Woman Archives hardcover is out of print, the character has joined the company’s new trade-paperback reprint line with The Wonder Woman Chronicles Vol. 1. Collecting Wonder Woman’s first 11 appearances—three issues short of the corresponding Archives’ volume—from 1941 and ’42, Chronicles is an inexpensive, beautifully restored reintroduction to the character in all her myth-steeped, Grecian-goddess glory. Granted, it’s no textbook for feminism—there’s still that unsettling undercurrent of bondage, cattiness, and making fun of fat girls—and the brief instances of World War II-era racism are excruciating. But as a vital piece of Golden Age Americana, not to mention a fun, bracing read, Chronicles is a wonder… B+

Matt and Shawn Fillbach’s Maxwell Strangewell was one of the best comics of 2007, thanks to a trippy, ambitious story and a breathless science-fiction adventure. Much less trippy and ambitious: Werewolves On The Moon Versus Vampires (Dark Horse), their new collaboration with Dave Land. Their art, which looked stark and iconic in black and white in Maxwell Strangewell, mostly just looks sloppy and a little amateurish here, with heavy lines, garish colors, and distorted faces that don’t always acknowledge standard ideas of perspective. And the story is largely pulp cheese, as a bunch of vampires attack a bunch of werewolves who’ve infiltrated a moon base. Ultimately, they wind up squabbling over a moon cop named Maggie, a tough, grim, driven woman who kicks ass and takes no shit for half the book, then becomes a hapless prize to be quarreled over and shoved aside for the rest of it. That’s exactly the kind of weak cliché this already clumsy book didn’t much need. Land and the Fillbachs achieve a propulsive sense of story similar to Strangewell’s, though here, there’s more self-aware, goofy humor undercutting any tension, and the characters never get past being the broadest possible stereotypes. That and a love of cartoony gore and lowbrow gross-out humor makes this book strictly for the younger, less complicated set… C-

For a more sophisticated, though still type-driven look at vampires, there’s Vertigo’s just launched American Vampire. Issue #1 contains two stories, one by Scott Snyder (Iron Man Noir), who conceptualized the series, and one by Stephen King, who volunteered to contribute when Snyder explained his ideas for the project. The two stories are set in different eras—Snyder’s in 1925 Los Angeles, and King’s in 1880 Colorado—but they cross over, as part of a vast planned narrative about vampire genealogy, conceived as something of an antidote to modern sparkly romance-vampires, and a return to the killer-thug vamps of Snyder’s youth. Snyder’s story is more leisurely, meaning that it doesn’t get too far in this issue. But its focus on character development and taking in the sense of ’20s Hollywood among the struggling wannabes is admirable, and immersive though not particularly intense. King’s story is more raw Wild West adventure, and it’s easy enough to see him writing this as a short story in his heyday. As a package, the first issue is little more than a slim teaser, though one that promises a lot of ideas to come. Also promising: Rafael Albuquerque’s art for both stories, executed in a stylized Art Deco manner for the Hollywood story, and a rougher, more painted look for the Western story. His flexibility and attention to style and detail in both cases is exciting, and invites a second look at the whole project. King is in for at least the first five issues, so hopefully his famous name will drive enough interest to keep the series going until it fully finds its legs and reveals what Snyder is up to… B+

In Lenore: Noogies (Titan), the most recent reprinting of Roman Dirge’s gothic comic strips, Dirge was forced to painstakingly recreate his artwork from lo-res scans of the black-and-white originals. He shouldn’t have bothered. While these newly colorized gags show how Dirge’s grasp of the graphic medium grew from story to story in those early days, the gags themselves fall disastrously flat, as shock value is juxtaposed with cuteness in a cloying way that quickly becomes annoying. At its best, Lenore aims for the kind of morbid wit and macabre humor once practiced by Tim Burton and Edward Gorey. But really, it’s not suited for much besides emo kids’ lunchboxes… C-

Warren Ellis is in full I-wish-I-were-Alan-Moore mode in the first installment of his new four-issue miniseries, Captain Swing And The Electrical Pirates Of Cindery Island (Avatar). Of course, that doesn’t stop Ellis from being, well, Ellis—which means gratuitous internal organs and the use of the word “fuck” as a surrogate for real dialogue and drama. Ellis knows how to make splattery good work out of his limited palette, but he’s using Moore’s color scheme here, and this tale of a corrupt, Victorian police force trying to cope with such overused steampunk bugaboos as Spring Heeled Jack and (gasp!) electricity doesn’t find much traction. It doesn’t help that every fourth page is devoted to a dry, inert paragraph of exposition—a narrative conceit that not only acts as a speed bump, but wastes precious space. With only 22 pages of actual comics, most of them full of silent panels (albeit rendered in nice, grim tones by Raulo Caceres), this introduction to Captain Swing has a sharp hook, but doesn’t give itself enough of line to reel in readers… B-

Part of what seems to be a never-ending wave of “Let’s stick a historical figure and/or character into an uncharacteristic science-fiction/fantasy/horror setting” books and comics,Time Lincoln (Antarctic) features the Great Emancipator being rescued on the eve of his assassination by a time-traveling H.G. Wells, then visiting key moments in history to set things right. Why? Who knows? Who cares? It’s all in service of the goofy concept, which, oddly enough, works more often than not. This is the sort of comic that coasts on an awesome idea, which is to say, one that’s appealing to the inner or outer 12-year-old, and more than a little stupid. But writer/artist Fred Perry manages to invest it with cool moments. The historical cameos are well-drawn, though historically about as accurate as the typical Jimmy Olsen comic, and there’s enough laughs and action to fill up its page count. It’s a good thing this is only a one-shot, as the concept is way too thin to fill up even a miniseries, but for what it is, it’s a pretty fun ride… B

One of the more rewarding trends in contemporary comics is the revival of crime noir stories, and, after a somewhat shaky start, Nick Spencer has become one of the finest practitioners of the genre. His latest series, Shuddertown (Image), starts out as a winner: It follows the slow deterioration of homicide detective Isaac Hernandez as he investigates a series of killings in the titular housing project. Hernandez is a perfectly drawn noir anti-hero and Spencer portrays his frustrationand exhaustion viscerally. Artist Adam Geen does a fine job on the visuals as well; his sharp lines and washed-out colors provide a fitting backdrop for Hernandez’s self-destructive descent as it becomes more and more clear that the only rational suspects in the crimes he’s investigating have themselves been dead for years. Spencer has come a long way in a short time, and if the rest of Shuddertown lives up to the first few issues, he’ll be an author to watch for the foreseeable future… A- 

The appearance of Keith Champagne’s name in the credits of a comic book is a clue that it isn’t likely to contain Watchmen levels of sophistication. The idea of a bunch of WWE wrestlers getting turned into time-traveling superheroes is likewise not especially promising. That said, WWE Heroes (Titan) is significantly worse than even those factors would seem to indicate. A gaggle of cut-rate WWE stars (drawn in generic, indistinguishable fashion by Andy Smith) travel back in time to re-fight World War II, the American Civil War, and a lesser-known conflict involving South American were-leopards on behalf of a couple of pointless immortal enemies. Readers are given precious little information about these two, but that’s fine, because it’s almost impossible to care. The whole thing reads like it was written by the kid who writes Axe Cop, only without any sense of joy or fun, and with an even less coherent plot. Special bonus: in the press release for the comic, journalists seeking more information about Keith Champagne are directed to his Wikipedia page. Way to earn it, publicist! Atrocious… D

Speaking of Axe Cop, anyone who hasn’t been following this online-only strip is missing out on one of the best things to happen to webcomics in years. It’s written by overimaginative, hyper 6-year-old Malachai Nicolle and illustrated by his talented 29-year-old brother Ethan (writer-artist of Chumble Spuzz), who coaxes the stories out of his brother, then manages to make them more or less linear while leaving in all the ridiculousness a little boy’s imagination can muster, including dinosaurs, “Sockarang”—a superhero with socks for arms—and the titular Axe Cop, a crime-fighter who’s perpetually threatening to chop off heads. Much like Time Lincoln above, Axe Cop is more about childhood concepts of awesomeness than about story logic or quality, but within that framework, it’s a heady delight: It’s perfectly fitting in its high absurdism, and it brings back memories of what it was like to be a little kid playing let’s-pretend with no limits. Ethan’s design and illustration give the stories their shape, however. His dinos and superheroes are beautifully rendered, and his caricatured characters are just solid enough to bring their personas across through all the humor… A

With a new Iron Man movie due out in May, now is as good a time as any to get re-acquainted with everyone’s favorite shell-head. Iron Man: Armor Wars Prologue (Marvel) isn’t an origin story, and it doesn’t make for an entirely cohesive whole, but it does have 10 issues from the series’ late-’80s run, giving near-equal page time to billionaire super-genius Tony Stark and his best friend, classic comic-book black dude Jim Rhodes. The two fight supervillains, face corporate intrigue, and set the stage for the Armor Wars storyline, and it’s exactly the kind of breezy, charmingly overwritten pulp that one would expect. A few characters die, but the angst is kept to a minimum, and Tony’s high-flying lifestyle and technical wizardry never lose their charm. Plus, the occasional references to then-current fads (See Tony Stark get a perm!) are a hoot. When people bemoan the disappearance of meat-and-potatoes storytelling in modern comics, this is the kind of book they’re hungry for… B+

The shadow of Lynda Barry looms large over the work of cartoonist Esther Pearl Watson, whose scratchy drawing style and preoccupation with adolescent embarrassment recalls Barry’s work, though without the rich characterization or the flashes of pure poetic grace. Watson’s Unlovable Vol. 2 (Fantagraphics) continues Watson’s “loose” adaptation of “a teenager’s diary from the 1980s found in a gas station bathroom,” and while some moments get at how a little bit of positive attention and the right pop song can make an ordinary day notable for an awkward teen, Watson’s self-consciously ugly art—coupled with her disregard for any attempts to turn her one-panel-a-page style into a fluid narrative—makes even Unlovable’s more penetrating scenes tough to read… C-

By sheer coincidence, the Wildstorm miniseries Mysterius The Unfathomable arrived around the same time as Vertigo’s similar (and superior) The Unwritten, another comic about the hidden connections between magic and children’s literature. Mysterius didn’t get the attention it deserved at the time, but now that the complete six-issue run has been collected in trade form, fans of comics like The Books Of Magic and Alan Moore’s Tomorrow Stories should seek it out. Tom Fowler’s Mad-inspired art brings an unusual vibe to Jeff Parker’s story of a potbellied, near-immortal magician/investigator who takes on a new assistant and drags her along on a series of intertwined cases that involve an ancient foe, a hippie coven, a philanderer who has the names of all his conquests scrawled on his skin, and a missing writer who’s a cross between Dr. Seuss and H.P. Lovecraft. The adept-teaches-novice premise has been done to death in modern comics, but Mysterius has wit, charm, and a cartoony art style that sets it apart from most comics of this type. Would it be too much to ask for a sequel?... B+

There are no huge surprises in issue #12 of True Story, Swear To God (Image), except in that it’s always a bit of a surprise whenever writer-artist Tom Beland gets one out. It’s been a year and a half since the last one, for personal reasons Beland explains within the issue—a minor accident that developed into a major problem with his drawing hand—and it’s been a long wait for the big payoff to the story he’s been telling all along. Beland met his fiancée Lily Garcia—a popular Puerto Rican radio personality—at a bus stop in Disneyworld, and wound up moving to Puerto Rico to be with her. For years, True Story, Swear To God has followed their relationship, particularly through Beland’s struggles with depression and feelings of inadequacy, not to mention his fear of moving to a place where he stood out and didn’t speak the language. But in this new issue, they finally get married—courtesy of Disneyworld, which hosts and pays for the ceremony, has Mickey and Minnie show up at the wedding, showers the happy couple and their family with strange gifts, and naturally makes a media event of it all. Compared to a lot of the more complicated, emotional events in the autobiographical series so far, this largely joyous love-fest seems pretty mundane, but it’s a sweet payoff after a long, long wait… B+

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