May 20, 2010

Every classic should have its own Classics Illustrated comic—even ridiculous manufactured parody classics. Hence Pride And Prejudice And Zombies: The Graphic Novel (Del Rey), which gives Seth Grahame-Smith’s genre-launching monster-mashup novel the Classics Illustrated treatment. Tony Lee’s adaptation of the book is stringent in its accuracy to the original text; Cliff Richards’ black-and-white illustrations—mostly line art over textured grey backgrounds, for contrast—are relatively simple and functional, and look a little rushed, but remain loving and detailed when it comes to gore and particularly emotional moments. Like a Classics Illustrated comic, the adaptation lacks the full impact of the prose—which is much more the point than the story in this case, given how closely Grahame-Smith sticks to Jane Austen’s original style in his outsized tale of zombie mayhem—but also like a CI issue, it lets people with short attention spans see what the fuss is about pretty quickly, then move on to something else… C+

Self-published but distributed by AdHouse, Joey Weiser’s Cavemen In Space is the kind of labor of love that spurs great creators to take crazy risks, ignore the market’s demands, and craft graphic novels steeped in the sheer thrill of their own creation. This comedic science-fiction romp follows a tribe of peaceful, near-utopian prehistoric humans who get whisked away to a space station in the far future. But the wide-eyed primitives experience more than mere culture shock in Weiser’s madcap, satirical vision of tomorrow; profound philosophical differences settle in as idyllic innocence runs headlong into alien life-forms, corporate greed, and, even scarier, modern art. Told in a clear, bold, instantly absorbable cartoon style influenced by masters of iconography like Jeff Smith, James Kochalka, and Scott McCloud—whose Zot! may well have been a major influence—Cavemen In Space has a level of subtle sophistication that readers of any age can latch onto, which was clearly Weiser’s intent. It’s the type of rollicking, genre-happy blast of craft and imagination that comic books were made to deliver… A-

Flipping the script on his own Irredeemable series, Mark Waid’s Incorruptible Vol. 1 (Boom!) follows notorious villain Max Damage, who goes straight when the world’s greatest hero—Irredeemable’s The Plutonian—goes on a murderous rampage. As with Irredeemable, the fun of Incorruptible is in the details: how Max Damage informs his fellow villains that he’s switched sides, and how he works with law enforcement to help a populace feeling abandoned and endangered. Jean Diaz’s art isn’t as dynamic or expressive as Peter Krause’s work on Irredeemable, and the four issues collected in this first Incorruptible volume don’t cover nearly enough ground, but this is still a hugely entertaining series, from a writer in full command of his voice and his genre… B+

A cautionary tale about the dangers of enjoying a bit too much tequila while vampires and demonic turkeys are on the prowl, Hellboy In Mexico (Or A Drunken Blur) (Dark Horse) pairs Mike Mignola’s pulp madness with Richard Corben’s moody visuals, lovingly rendered zombies, and generous use of shadow for a fleet romp south of the border that should whet appetites for the pair’s upcoming Double Feature Of Evil (or provoke a re-reading of the excellent The Crooked Man). While waiting for a BPRD pickup, Abe Sapien and Big Red stumble out of the heat and down memory lane, as Hellboy recounts the time he teamed up with a trio of masked luchadores bent on staving off the apocalypse. After one drunken night too many, disaster strikes, and soon the Mayan bat god, Camazotz, has Hellboy literally against the ropes in a repurposed ziggurat filled with undead wrestling enthusiasts—including what appear to be a few unfortunate conquistadores. The framing narrative comes packaged with a solid payoff; Mignola’s writing is efficient, and Corben’s grim, stone-faced figures provide a nice contrast with the story’s lighter moments. But did a comic released on Cinco de Mayo really need to highlight the perils of drinking? B 

Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Belle Yang’s memoir, Forget Sorrow (W.W. Norton), tells the story of a family ravaged by political revolution. But even with a colorful history to fall back on, Yang lacks Satrapi’s ear for dialogue and the kind of detail that makes a collection of anecdotes about long-dead great-uncles universal instead of interminable. While Yang hides out from an abusive boyfriend (dubbed Bad Egg by her family), she pumps her disapproving father for information about her roots, uncovering pettiness and self-sacrifice in almost equal measure, along with life lessons—occasionally in poem form—that speak to her own inability to escape the nest. Yang’s art has more than a little of the naïve iconography and centrifugal structures of a Marc Chagall painting, but somewhere between when the Yang family strikes it rich on grain trading and when it’s forced to split apart during the Cultural Revolution, the stories start to run together and the illustrations begin to feel perfunctory… C+

The cover of the Gigantic trade (Dark Horse) is mostly in Japanese, which betrays the series’ origins, but may scare off casual readers who think the inside reflects the outside. It’s actually just a nod to the story, a somewhat fresh twist on the ol’ Japanese giant-monsters-attack-a-city trope. Writer Rick Remender (Fear Agent) lays out a premise familiar from South Park: Turns out Earth is a popular reality-TV show for the rest of the bored, jaded universe, and the show is about due for a planet-smashing cancellation. Then a hero in a giant-robot suit shows up and declares himself Earth’s protector, and the city-flattening fights begin. The premise is interesting, but the storytelling is often confusing and deliberately melodramatic; the hero’s choppy internal monologue recalls Batman’s much-parodied mental chatter in The Dark Knight Returns, and his initial introduction is more baffling than mysterious, at least on a first read-through. Eric Nyugen and John Cottrell’s mecha-manga art is dense, colorful, and precise, but occasionally it’s so busy that it’s tough to follow as well. But the story is sharp, with plenty of abrupt twists, and the stakes are huge; as flawed as earthlings are (by specific design, as it turns out), it’s still easy to cheer for them over their profiteering creators, and to feel every human death in this cataclysm-filled book pretty profoundly. Gigantic isn’t an instant classic, but it’s a hell of a page-turner… B

With the secular popularity of post-apocalyptic stories and the sectarian popularity of the Left Behind series, it’s curious that the Biblical Rapture hasn’t spawned more stories. One of the most interesting takes on the idea is Sword Of My Mouth (IDW), by writer Jim Munroe and artist Shannon Gerard; originally featured online—it’s a sequel to Munroe’s Therefore Repent! graphic novel—it’s a genuinely creepy interpretation of a world where the majority of Christians have been bodily assumed to Heaven. Those who remain behind, like single mother Ella, are faced with a world where angels attack major cities to slaughter the sinful, the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse spread chaos and death, and basic social functions like fire safety, electricity, and steady food supplies are hard to come by. On top of this, magic has started working again, in ways both major (Gypsy women sell spells that really work) and minor (Ella’s baby is born with a full set of teeth). Against this unpredictable, disturbing backdrop, Munroe tells ordinary stories of survival and friendship, and for all the religious and mystical wonders on display, his gift for capturing realistic behavior among normal human adults and children alike makes Sword Of My Mouth worthwhile. Some odd pacing and a rather abrupt ending keeps it from realizing its full potential, but this is a very well-realized world from the imagination of two impressive young talents… B+

Jane Yolen’s young-adult graphic novel Foiled (First Second) holds off on its big reveal for so long that readers may decide it isn’t coming at all, and start hoping that the story’s conclusion won’t be as obvious as it seems from the start. Unfortunately, it does eventually go in the expected direction, and not in a particularly interesting way, either. It’s hard to say more without ruining the plot, which is largely about a slightly troubled, somewhat smug fencer who’s dealing with her first significant crush on a boy and the somewhat baffling things about him. The book’s major success lies in the art of Mike Cavallaro, who also illustrated the gorgeous Parade (With Fireworks); the style here is cartoony and accessible, but well-executed in the detail and downright lavish in the expression of motion and emotion, and the smartest part about the story’s Big Twist is how he represents it in the color he otherwise withholds for most of the book… B

Mario Acevedo has enjoyed one of the oddest successes in the urban fantasy field with his Felix Gomez novels, a series about a vampiric Iraq War vet who returns home to become a detective, deal with his addiction to blood, and battle all kinds of supernatural nastiness. It’s a concept inherently suited for comic books—which makes the first issue of Acevedo’s Killing The Cobra (IDW) a lot of fun. In this original Felix story, the befanged, bloodsucking private eye takes on a Hong Kong heroin cartel while digging up lots of baggage from his past—an admittedly formulaic story that breezes along nimbly thanks to solid, albeit unremarkable, layouts by former Spider-Man Unlimited artist Alberto Dose. The fact that Acevedo is a first-time comics writer is apparent in his sometimes jumpy pacing and long stretches of exposition, but his action and dialogue are pulpy enough to carry the load… B-

Like Weird, Raw, and Drawn And Quarterly before it, Fantagraphics’ Mome has been the go-to showcase of its time for emerging alt-comics visionaries. Mome #18 is another excellent installment of the anthology series—so excellent, in fact, that it’s hard to single out a highlight. Conor O’Keefe’s muted, Little Nemo-esque sepia-tone-poem “Autumn” is one shining spot, as is Jon Adams’ “The Jerk Machine,” a piece of wordless magic realism with a cornea-scratching punchline and a strong Chris Ware influence. The only real weak spot is Nate Neal’s diagrammatic bashing of hipsters and a limp attempt at silly, surreal science fiction, both of which try way too hard without delivering the goods—especially when compared to the unique, compelling pieces found elsewhere in the issue… A-

At this point, no one should need any convincing that Krazy Kat is one of the greatest works of comic art ever created, and that it should form the foundation of any good collection. All that’s needed is the knowledge of where to start and what format to choose. With that in mind, Fantagraphics has outdone itself with Krazy And Ignatz 1916-1918: Love In A Kestle Or Love In A Hut. A handsome collection of some of the earliest pieces from George Herriman’s archetypal cat-and-mouse strip, it’s designed with the kind of care and respect that’s become standard for the publisher’s archival collections, and it features a useful glossary and an entertaining foreword by editor Bill Blackbeard. But Fantagraphics goes above and beyond with Krazy And Ignatz: Many of the strips were hard to find and in very poor condition, so no expense has been spared in using the latest digital technology to restore them to a readable form that’s as close to the original as possible. Herriman’s work probably hasn’t looked this good since it first appeared in newspapers more than 90 years ago. To top it all off, it’s being released in a softcover edition at a price within the range of readers who can’t shell out for the high-priced hardcovers… A

Roy Thomas is finally beginning to get the credit he deserves as a comics writer, but it may never be enough. Aside from everything he did to advance the cause of superhero comics, he and artistic collaborator Barry Windsor-Smith are not only are responsible—far more than creator Robert E. Howard—for the popular image of Conan The Barbarian, but they partly inspired the imagery, language, and tone of most contemporary fantasy. The first two years of their run on Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian—the second of which is now collected in The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives Vol. 2 (Dark Horse)—came out in the early 1970s, and not only influenced fantasy writers, but also had an incalculable effect on the Dungeons & Dragons craze that appeared a few years later. Much of the visual cues we use in fantasy films, books, and television stem from Thomas’ writing and especially Smith’s art, and that, rather than the minor improvements like digital re-coloring, is what makes this collection worth owning. Smith left the title in 1973, but not before turning in some of the outstanding work, including the legendary “Red Nails,” collected here… B+

So popular was Thomas’ interpretation of the character of Conan that it spun off a magazine-format title, Savage Sword Of Conan, which ran for more than 20 years, first from the Marvel imprint Curtis Publications, and later by Marvel itself. Dark Horse has done a workmanlike job of collecting these stories, but by the time most of the material in the latest anthology, The Savage Sword Of Conan Vol. 7, rolled around, it was beginning to show signs of wear. Roy Thomas was long gone, and while there are a few stories here written by Bruce Jones and a young Chris Claremont, most of them are penned by notorious hack Michael Fleischer. The art, on the other hand, is much more rewarding; these books came out at the peak of the Filipino artist influx of the ’70s, and it features some top-shelf illustration by Ernie Chan and Alfredo Alcala, as well as American veterans like John Buscema (showing his aptitude for the barbarian-action format), Joe Chiodo, and Val Mayerik. Still, the stories are pretty dismal, and no art is good enough to rescue Fleischer’s stories of Conan going up against robots and mutants… C+

Since acquiring the rights to Conan in 2002, Dark Horse has done a fine job of re-releasing Marvel’s original Conan comics. The company’s record of new material based on the character is decidedly more mixed. Of course, Dark Horse doesn’t have talents like ’70s-vintage Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith at its disposal, so it’s had to make do with what was on hand. (Although Mike Mignola’s lone Conan story for Dark Horse showed what he might be capable of if he chose to do more.) Conan Vol. 8: Black Colossus collects material, mostly from 2008, by writer Tim Truman and artist Tomás Giorello. The latter is competent enough, though a tad formulaic and derivative, but Truman is the real problem. Solid when using his own characters, but shaky with other people’s inventions, he tries to do right by the original material, clinging far more closely to Howard’s original texts than Thomas ever did, and trying to incorporate the trickier, class-based elements of the stories. But part of what made Thomas such a good writer is that he knew when to be faithful and when to deviate wildly; Truman doesn’t have his storytelling instincts, and tends to err on the side of good faith, which can make for some dull stories. Still, he’s drawing on some choice material, and this isn’t a bad place to start to work your way back to the real classics of the genre… B-

With Thor on his way to the big screen, Vikings are in vogue—or so you’d think, from the profusion of Nordic-themed comics springing up lately. Vertigo has been doing a great job with Brian Wood’s Northlanders, but Image’s Viking is no slouch either. Where Northlanders is steeped in the seriousness of folklore, Viking: The Long Cold Fire has a bit of fun by blending genres and mixing in some grim humor. The hardcover collects the first five issues of the series, and it shows just how brave a writer Ivan Brandon is; shoehorning an epic of syndicated crime into a the politics of love, revenge, and Viking colonialism, Brandon juggles a compelling cast of characters and plot threads while leaving plenty of room for brisk action, and of course, lots of beheadings. It’s still a relatively rudimentary yarn so far, though, and Nic Klein’s gorgeous art—while resembling a scratchier, sketchier Jamie Hewlett—tends to adopt an odd sense of pacing and layout that dramatizes tiny moments and downplays the big ones. Still, as far as Thor-meets-The Sopranos goes, Viking nails it… B+

Alex Ross is justifiably renowned for his painted superhero art. But in many ways, his black-and-white pencil work is more stunning—as Rough Justice: The DC Comics Sketches Of Alex Ross (Pantheon) proves. A hardcover compendium of many of Ross’ conceptual and production sketches from his lauded DC series like Justice and Kingdom Come, the book shows the rich depth and texture that his work has before it’s covered up by all that candy coating. Here, Ross the draftsman is more evident than Ross the stylist, and his sometimes stilted storytelling isn’t an issue. Packed with insightful yet unobtrusive notes about his creative process, these pinups-in-the-raw even pack a few unexpected treats—including a failed pitch for a full-scale Marvel Family reboot, which Ross intended to draw using the conventional pencils-and-ink method. There are also aborted sketches of Brainiac based on the real-life likeness of Grant Morrison—intended, Ross insists, as a loving tribute to Morrison’s mad genius… B+

Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 2: Research (Archaia) answers a lot of questions that the first volume left hanging, particularly why the titular, vaguely Hogwarts-like school exists, and why series protagonist Antimony was brought there. It also delves into her family history, and reveals more about the series’ most intriguing characters, including an odd-talking eyeless girl. It’s a satisfying payoff, though it’s also a little baffling, considering that the first book was such a strange mixture of intriguing characters and setting, with so little concrete movement in any direction. Still, even when it’s just focusing on character interaction instead of making forward progress, Gunnerkrigg Court is a pleasure—a low-key gothic fantasy that’s tonally along the lines of Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin books, but focused more on a central friendship and a complicated community than a single character, and with lavishly colors and rich design instead of stark blacks and whites. And Research functions as a reassurance that writer-artist Tom Siddell has a purpose and a destination in mind for his webcomic-turned-book, which makes it that much easier to enjoy the laid-back journey… B+

The much more streamlined self-contained Archaia book Tumor wastes little time in getting to the point: Its protagonist, noir-inflected P.I. Frank Armstrong, is dying of a brain tumor. But like any noir hero who’s mostly survived his adventures and finally escaped trouble, he wants back in, with one last score—in this case, a paying gig tracking down the missing daughter of a local mobster. Murders, double-crosses, and hard-boiled internal monologue follow, all complicated by the fact that Frank keeps having seizures, losing time, and waking up in the hospital, like the world’s most fragile, decrepit Sam Spade. But his mental infirmities come to a head when his current case starts recalling a long-ago event that changed his life. Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov and artist Noel Tuazon blur the past and present together in brilliant ways, with compositions almost as intense and frightening to readers as they are to the people trying to deal with Frank’s unpredictability. This is a great detective story, one that seems as influenced by Memento as by classic pulp detective novels, and it thunders along to a fitting climax that begs to be played out on a movie screen. But it’s also a clever use of the comics medium, with Tuazon’s scratchy, jagged art making Frank’s disintegrating state of mind and body palpable, and panels that do strange and clever things with time. Tumor was the first serialized comic created for the Kindle, but it reads just fine in this chunky dead-tree format. A-

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