May 15, 2009

 

Dave Sim has spent the five years since the conclusion of his epic series Cerebus pissing away whatever goodwill remained after his public acts of misogynistic craziness. Even leaving aside his unhinged behavior, his creative work has been spotty: a comic biography of a little-known Sino-Canadian actress; Judenhass, a controversial, unsuccessful treatment of the Holocaust; and glamourpuss, an abysmal, sexist parody of the fashion world. While he’s sworn repeatedly that he’s done with Cerebus, he may have noticed that these titles aren’t exactly raking in the dough; hence The Cerebus Archive #1 (Aardvark-Vanaheim). A collection of his earliest work, ranging all the way back to 1972, the Archive features his first published comic (a proto-Cerebus story called “Cry Of The White Wolf”) and other materials, along with “director’s commentary” from Sim himself on each piece. There’s plenty of stuff here for comics historians, including a 1975 story by Sim, John Byrne, and the late, lamented Gene Day, and Sim’s commentary is surprisingly funny and self-effacing, proving that there’s still a sense of humor operating under all that self-righteousness. With plans to keep the title running indefinitely, the Archive could prove to be a fascinating DVD box-set-style approach to his groundbreaking series; it’s just too bad he can’t produce any new original work worth reading… B+

Speaking of Cerebus, who would have predicted that Sim’s “phone book” format would be the perfect way to collect the works of the Hernandez brothers, whose work couldn’t be more different? But massive soft-cover collections have proved well-suited to the chronological collections of Jaime and Gilberto, and after several months of delay, the latter-day work of Beto has finally arrived in Luba (Fantagraphics), a 600-page monster sequel to his Heartbreak Soup stories set in Palomar. These collect both major story arcs and three-panel one-shots starring the buxom survivor, in publication order, and like the previous collections, they’re presented in such a way as to make it more organized and comprehensible. Just like Heartbreak Soup and Locas, Luba is hard to put down, and Beto’s art gets better as it gets more experimental, but the writing isn’t as strong as it is in the Palomar stories. He found a unique, personal narrative voice, but it wasn’t necessarily an improvement; those who prefer Jaime’s work to Beto’s won’t have their minds changed here, and Beto fans may prefer the earlier work. Still, there’s tons of good material here, and the humongous format can’t be beat in terms of bang for your buck… B

Writer Mark Waid certainly hasn’t disappeared into the morass of administrative duties since taking over as Boom! Studio’s editor-in-chief. In fact, he appears to have dusted off every good idea he was keeping for himself while working primarily for Marvel and DC. The hardcover collection Potter’s Field collects four issues featuring the character of John Doe, a man with a mysterious past who hangs out in the graveyard where New York buries its unidentifiable dead. Using a network of operatives, pressed into his service out of obligation or leverage, Doe solves the cases the police can’t crack. The premise may sound a bit gimmicky—Cold Case meets The Shadow—but there’s nothing forced about the execution, which mixes clever mysteries with a lead who’s as much a mystery to readers as he is to those who do his bidding. This is first-rate crime fiction, brought to noirish life by artist Paul Azaceta… A-

Waid must have mystery on his mind these days. The first issue of the new miniseries The Unknown (Boom!) introduces a fast-witted detective who takes on a bouncer as a partner (and possible apprentice) moments before telling him that she has six months to live. It also introduces some out-there concepts—including a quantum crime—which should develop nicely in the issues to come, even though this first issue feels in a bit of a rush to introduce everything at once. When creators are in the middle of the sort of winning streak Waid is enjoying now, it’s sometimes best just to trust they know what they’re doing… B+ 

Further proof Waid knows what he’s about: He’s also doing a respectable job of tackling Boom! Kids’ continuation of Pixar’s The Incredibles, in a four-part miniseries that takes up a bit after the film leaves off: In The Incredibles: Family Matters #1, the titular super-family is comfortably tackling supervillains as a team, with even little Jack-Jack, still a babe in arms, doing his part. The familial conflicts are pretty familiar and tame—Dash wants to run off on his own, Violet resents being the family babysitter, Mr. Incredible is trying to assert himself as patriarch—but the big reveal at the end of the first issue promises more interesting things to come. In the meantime, Marcio Takara’s art takes some Art Deco inspiration from the film’s graphic stype, but finds its own footing rather than trying to slavishly imitate the film’s CGI look, and Waid’s familiarity with the characters shows; they come across as believable continuations of the franchise. This series doesn’t look like it’s primed to become essential, but it’s a worthwhile diversion for the film’s superfans, particularly those who want to keep sharing the story with their kids. By contrast, Boom! Kids’ other Pixar spin-off, The World Of Cars: The Rookie #1, is a kids-only kind of project. This one flashes back to the early days of Cars protagonist Lightning McQueen, showing how he met and misused his transport partner, Mack the truck; the emotions and dialogue are drawn big and broad, and Albert Carreres’ art is correspondingly bright and simple—some racing panels add depth and blur effects to give a sense of speed, but those just serve to make the rest look flat and unnuanced. It isn’t terrible, just middling; it feels a lot like a giveaway comic to promote the film… Incredibles: B; Cars: C

Written by Mark Sable (Grounded) and drawn by Julian Totino Tedesco, the first issue of the miniseries Unthinkable (Boom!) has an undeniably grabby concept: In the wake of 9/11, a misfit bunch of scientists, authors, businessmen, and others meet to think up possible future terrorist plots. After they go their separate ways, they watch in horror as the plots start to come true. But in this first chapter, the execution doesn’t live up to the idea. Sable’s script gets bogged down in manufactured conflict and a pace that shifts from first gear to fifth without any consideration for whiplash… C

Things have certainly been busy lately for Marvel’s Dark Tower franchise, written by Peter David (with direction from Dark Tower originator Stephen King and consultation from Dark Tower series scholar Robin Furth) and illustrated by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove. First, there’s the Treachery prestige hardcover, which has been topping the New York Times’ bestseller list lately; it collects the six-issue Treachery miniseries, following up on The Long Road Home, as young Roland Deschain struggles with his desire for Merlyn’s magical sphere, his friends Bert and Alain worry over him and over new resentment of them from their fellow gunslinger candidates, and their home of Gilead teeters toward its inevitable fall. This part of the story sometimes feels overstretched, as though David is consciously putting off those inevitable events and enjoying the prestige and attention this series has been garnering; while the book introduces an interesting new character and plays with a lot of complicated dynamics, all themed around betrayal and backstabbing, the forward motion is mighty slow, and man, the characters (and the narrator) like their speechifying. It’s hard to imagine a point where it won’t be fantastic to see all these events playing out via gorgeous art and careful attention—King only barely hinted at most of them in his seven Dark Tower novels—but it’s still hard not to pine for the next steps. Fortunately, they’re coming right up; issue #1 of the next arc, The Fall Of Gilead, hit stands Wednesday. We didn’t manage to snag a copy, so we’re making do for the moment with the one-shot Dark Tower: The Sorcerer,  a Furth-scripted sidebar that claims to explore the motivations of series baddie Marten Broadcloak. It really doesn’t; it’s far more about “what” than “why,” as it just fills in the blanks of exactly where he was at certain points during Treachery. The issue is reasonably key to the series, as it features him bringing a significant character back to life, and introduces a new element—an anthropomorphic, succubus-like entity personifying the magical sphere that has Roland (and now his father) so entranced. It’s a sidebar, but it belongs in the next collection as a solid part of the story. Less so Dark Tower: Guide To Gilead, a catalog-like one-shot packed with background details about the series, from its places to its characters to its gods. This one’s more like a mini RPG sourcebook than anything else, and given that most of its art seems to come from the main books themselves, it’s pretty much for collectors and fanatics only… Treachery: A-; Sorcerer: B+; Guide To Gilead: C

How to know Vertigo really wants everyone on board for its new comic, The Unwritten: It’s priced the first issue, a hefty 40-pager, at $1 to reel people in. Or maybe that’s more a sign of confidence that a single taste will hook readers right off. It’s a pretty good bet. The latest from Mike Carey (Lucifer, Crossing Midnight, and a million other things) aims its storyline squarely at fans of Harry Potter, The Books Of Magic, and, well, Mike Carey comics: The first issue is a mishmash of fantasy and reality, with the lines between blurring from the first page on. The protagonist, Tom Taylor, is a gadabout who’s eked out a living his whole life doing signings, speeches, and tours on the strength of his father’s Harry Potter-esque fantasy books, all about a magical kid named Tommy Taylor. Then it comes out that he may not even be the author’s real son, let alone the inspiration for the beloved series. Which would be bad enough without the antagonist from the books showing up in real life to kill him, and then there’s magic and a crazy Tommy Taylor cult and talk of heroic destinies, and basically the first issue is really crowded, ambitious, exciting, and worth a buck. Lucifer (and Fables) artist Peter Gross is back, too, with a couple of distinct looks for different aspects of the story… A-

Guess who else is back? Kurt Busiek has once again taken up his stellar Astro City with book three of the Dark Age “maxi-series.” Protagonists Charles and Royal Williams—last seen in book two reconciling, after a fashion, when criminal Royal gave up his freedom to help cop Charles after a betrayal that literally left him shot in the back—are back and working together, as Royal infiltrates a creepy cult training program on Charles’ behalf. They swap narration duties, sometimes arguing with each other in the panels, but The Dark Age: Into The Abyss #1 (Wildstorm) is less about character, and more oriented toward pure action than most Astro City comics. Events are distinctly speeding up, with superheroes worrying more about the big picture than about individual civilian lives, and those individual civilians feeling ever more beaten-down and far from control of events. This issue doesn’t have the depth of most Astro City—there’s no central metaphor or reconfiguring of superhero tropes, just setup and action—but it’s early days yet, and it’s certainly nice to see this story finally continuing… B

Sometimes a comic tells you everything you need to know with its title. But if you’re predisposed to like something called Lockjaw And The Pet Avengers (Marvel) the first issue of this four-issue series, in which famous superhero pets and animal sidekicks team up, probably won’t change your mind. Kids might like it too, though it asks readers to know more about Marvel continuity than, say, anything in the kid-focused Marvel Adventures line… B-

Created by writer Bill Mantlo and artist Ed Hannigan, Cloak and Dagger have explored some corners of the Marvel Universe usually neglected by even the most street-level superheroes since their 1982 debut in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man. The pair of teen runaways—a rich white girl and a poor, stuttering black kid from Boston—met when they were kidnapped by criminals testing a new drug. As a side effect of the drug experiments, the girl was filled with the powers of light; she took on the name Dagger. Her partner, Cloak, became a portal to the abyss that needed to be fed with human “light,” either given to him by Dagger or obtained by consuming criminals. They’re odd but resonant characters, locked into a relationship with Catherine-and-Heathcliff levels of angst and determined to save other kids from grim fates, even if they aren’t sure how to go about it without simply killing every criminal they see. Cloak & Dagger: Child Of Darkness, Child Of Light (Marvel), collects the team’s first solo outing from 1984, written by Mantlo and drawn by Rick Leonardi. Aided by a sympathetic priest, Cloak and Dagger try to find their place in an ’80s New York out of Nancy Reagan’s worst nightmare, a city whose corners are filled with pimps, pushers, and child-exploiters of every kind. The story has its share of rough edges, but Mantlo’s feel for the tortured characters and ability to find a lot of moral ambiguity amid heartfelt heroics and obvious villainy makes it weirdly haunting… B+

Also currently playing with moral ambiguity in the face of obvious villainy: Steven T. Seagle’s five-issue miniseries Soul Kiss (Image), which just keeps getting better and weirder. In the first issue, the protagonist, Lili, strikes an ill-advised deal with the devil in order to escape rape after her car breaks down on an isolated road. She’s appalled when the price comes due and her boyfriend melts into goo, but there’s a way out, if she consigns 10 souls to Satan by kissing her victims. Seagle is using the high-concept premise to play “What would you do in this situation?” games with his readers and let Lili vault between angry, defiant victim and wicked, joyous avenger, but he’d still only get so far with his story without the scratchy, wild visual stylings of Marco Cinello, who’s doing an amazing job of pulling all the tones together. From color-themed pages to creative paneling to a marvelously wide variation in styles, Soul Kiss is as much pop-art collection as comic-book story, and it’s worth second and third and fourth looks… A-

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Fantasy writers can take us to astonishing new worlds; they can entrance readers with inventive, richly realized cultures, using the freedom of the genre to do literally anything, provided it’s done in the service of a good story. Or they can just rip off Tolkien and call it a day. It’s a little harsh to call R.A. Salvatore just one more in a long line of copycats, but there’s no denying that his stories of Drizzt Do’Urden owe a certain debt. The Legend Of Drizzt, Omnibus Volume 2 (Devil’s Due) collects three story arcs worth of Salvatore’s work, including The Crystal Shard, Streams Of Silver, and The Halfling’s Gem, and there are dragons, battle-hungry dwarves, halfings with magical talismans, and more than a few other clichés besides. Drizzt, a dark elf whose belief in justice and nobility alienated him from his bloodthirsty race, goes on various adventures to save his friends and protect people who, as often as not, won’t let him into their towns. While the first Omnibus benefited from a more connected story, Vol. 2 is largely episodic, with only some light character relationships to tie everything together. The art by Val Semeiks and Tim Seeley is solid, and does a nice job of capturing the many action sequences, but the writing (adapted from Salvatore’s novels by Andrew Dabb) never rises above adequate. Recommended for fantasy fans who like their stories comforting and vaguely familiar… B-

Superman’s stacked cousin Power Girl has been around for 32 years now, but good luck in finding any consistency in her history or characterization. About the only thing that’s remained constant since the early days is her giant jugs. In the latest attempt to turn her into a viable character, Power Girl #1 (DC), writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, just like everyone else, make a couple of smirking references to the Twin Peaks of Krypton, but overall, their new conception of PG as a hard-headed, brassy corporate type isn’t too bad. They give her an interesting set of supporting characters, a neat take on an established villain in the form of the Ultra-Humanite, and dialogue that’s serviceable, if not sparkling. But the real winner here is Amanda Connor’s skillful, detailed artwork; she’s coming along nicely as an artist, and with her newfound grasp of background and her usual fine way with facial expressions, looking at the new Power Girl is a treat. Time will tell whether they can sustain interest in the series, but the Palmiotti/Gray/Connor team has started out with the most readable take on PG in years… B

Studs Terkel’s Working is arguably his crowning achievement as an oral historian, a compelling, enlightening, sometimes heartbreaking series of accounts of working people discussing the real-life world of labor. It’s already been turned into a radio show, a play, and a proposed documentary film, so it’s no shock that with Working (New Press), it’s made its way into a comics format. What is a shock is that the man spearheading the project is notorious crank and irascible American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar—but surprising as it is, he’s a perfect choice. Pekar, for obvious reasons, has a keen grasp of working-class narratives, and he picks out entries from the book that are not only effective and moving, but perfectly suited to the graphic-novel format. He also assembles a crack team of underground cartoonists, both young unknowns and long-established veterans, to provide the art, including Danny Fingeroth, Terry LaBan, Dylan Miner, and Sabrina Jones. (Particularly effective is Peter Kuper’s illustration of Terkel’s interview with former union organizer Bill Talcott.) Along with editor Paul Buhle, Pekar has done the memory of Terkel and the men and women he interviewed proud, and assembled a worthy addition to his own efforts. A somewhat shabby layout and design is the only strike against this fine book… A-

The Adventures Of Tintin, by late Belgian comics pioneer Hergé, deserves its reputation as one of the greatest works in the history of the medium. Compulsively readable, gorgeously illustrated with his rich but simple line style, and filled with genuinely entertaining plots and situations, it’s also one of the few works aimed at kids that really does appeal to an adult audience as well. If you’ve somehow lived this long without reading the escapades of Europe’s most beloved boy reporter, now’s a perfect time, as redesigned versions of the seven volumes of The Adventures Of Tintin (Little, Brown) hit the shelves. Aside from snazzy, sharply designed new covers reminiscent of some Fantagraphics archive editions, there’s nothing new here; just like Little, Brown’s previous collections, they each feature three full-length Tintin stories in lush color. But while there’s no new material, the timing is good, as the previous editions are becoming hard to find, making this a fine time for kids, collectors, and new fans to immerse themselves in Hergé’s world. (Also, the first volume contains “The Blue Lotus,” one of the best Tintin adventures, and two excellent companion pieces, making it a great place to start…) A

The “family history” graphic novel subgenre can feel overdone at times—mainly because Art Spiegelman’s Maus set a standard that’s hard to match—but volume one of Carol Tyler’s autobiographical You’ll Never Know (Fantagraphics) is the kind of smartly conceived, affectingly personal work that makes comics and memoirs look fresh. Ostensibly about Tyler’s father—described in book one’s title as “A Good And Decent Man”—You’ll Never Know weaves together anecdotes from Mr. Tyler’s experiences in World War II with scenes from his daughter’s crumbling marriage. Carol Tyler works wonders with colored pencils and offbeat page designs, and though her efforts to make every illustration striking sometimes render the story too idiosyncratic, the breadth of her visual imagination is so impressive that the overreach is excusable. Also impressive: the thematic complexity of You’ll Never Know, which dwells on the contradictions of Tyler’s father—so goofy one minute, so inscrutable the next—then compares the old man to Tyler’s straying husband. The title of the book refers to the horrors of war, but Tyler makes it clear that she’s also talking about her persistent wonder at the mysteries of men… A-

From 1907 to her death in 1944, Nell Brinkley regularly contributed full-page illustrations to Hearst newspapers, often recounting elaborate romantic adventures one lavish weekly page at a time. Her heroines—frizzy-haired and bow-lipped, like prototypes for Bernadette Peters—became iconic, appearing in advertisements and inspiring songs and routines at Ziegfeld’s Follies. The handsome hardcover collection The Brinkley Girls (Fantagraphics) brings together a generous sampling of Brinkley’s work, leaning heavy on her stories of industrious women and the he-men they love. It’s hard to argue persuasively for the quality of the storytelling—though editor Trina Robbins makes a game effort in her introduction—but Brinkley’s art is so drop-dead gorgeous that readers may long to razor out every page to hang on the wall… A-

On the opposite end of the scale from The Brinkley Girls—art-wise and storytelling-wise—lies The Harvey Girls, the fifth and final volume of Dark Horse’s “Harvey Comics Classics” collection. Running nearly 500 pages—with more than 100 stories, some in color and some in glorious black-and-white—The Harvey Girls rounds up comics featuring the precocious Little Audrey, the daydreaming Little Dot, and the super-strong, super-corpulent Little Lotta. Though kid-targeted, these stories are wildly entertaining, and though the art is simplified, it’s also wonderfully elastic and vibrant. Reading The Harvey Girls is like seeing animation projected onto a page… A-

Lilli Carré’s Nine Ways To Disappear (Little Otsu) is a small, square book featuring one panel per page, a format that suits Carré’s dreamlike, one-oddity-after-another stories. Nine Ways To Disappear’s pieces read a lot like illustrated poems—sometimes pretentious, sometimes moving—and there isn’t enough variety here to sustain a full book. But Carré’s thick-lined, curvy style and unusual vision has a strong appeal, especially in stories like “If I Were A Fish,” where Carré adopts the voice of a storm drain that dreams of the objects that slip through its grate… B-

Still haven’t gotten around to reading Robert Kirkman’s much-acclaimed zombie-apocalypse series The Walking Dead? You’re just about out of excuses. The latest compilation, the massive, complete-Bone-sized, 48-issue paperback The Walking Dead: Compendium One (Image), makes it easier than ever to get on board, with eight books’ worth of story in one slick, nicely produced package. It also might be all the Walking Dead anyone needs; while the current series (now up to issue #61) retains a lot of interest, a certain exhaustion sets in through hundreds of pages in which the protagonist gathers together a few shreds of dignity and civilization in a zombie-haunted world, then loses people and possessions over and over as things inevitably keep falling apart. What makes this series redeeming rather than a miserablist wallow is Kirkman’s sharp observations of people—their interactions, their characterization, their many and varied desires—and Charlie Adlard’s gritty, realistic art, both of which make this more like a real-world what-if story than the kind of gross-out fantasy-metaphor that typifies most zombie movies… A

In the introduction to the new edition of Adrian Tomine’s 32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics (D&Q), the cartoonist comments that he’s always been somewhat embarrassed by this collection of early work, but that he feels better about it in its new packaging. He’s right to like the spiffed-up version of 32 Stories, which now offers facsimile versions of the original minis (complete with the original letters pages and stickers!) in a cardboard box. But he shouldn’t be so down on the comics themselves, which show a young artist—a teenager when he produced the first issue of Optic Nerve in the early ’90s—exploring different methods of drawing and storytelling with impressive assurance. Yes Tomine’s early work owes huge debts to the Hernandez brothers, Dan Clowes, and modern literary fiction, but the super-short pieces in 32 Stories—most only two- or three-pagers—have a looseness that the older Tomine ought to consider trying to recapture. Tomine is a better artist and more ambitious writer than he was 15 years ago, but a little what-the-hell spontaneity never hurts, especially in an ephemeral medium like comics. B+

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