May 29, 2009

 

A.V. Club Newswire readers are already aware that, starting in Archie Comics #600 (Archie Comics), America’s One-Time Favorite Teen proposes to his loaded brunette girlfriend, beginning the downward spiral that will eventually lead blonde Betty to become Cherry Pop-Tart. The question is, who cares? Well… True, there’s nothing groundbreaking about the stories, and judging from issues #601 and #602, this is little more than a competently executed gimmick storyline to boost sales. And sure, Archie Comics is about as hip as a pair of PF Flyers, and its writers’ attempts to stay hip are so comically unsuccessful that they’re a frequent target for people like Joshua Fruhlinger, whose Comics Curmudgeon blog frequently singles out Archie strips as seeming like humor generated by a machine. But it’s still fun to watch them try, and there are two reasons why readers who haven’t looked at an Archie comic in forever might want to take a gander. First of all, while the strips tend to all look the same, there’s something to be said for a house style as clean and polished as the Archie art; Dan DeCarlo, who gave Archie its modern-day look, was a huge influence on Jaime Hernandez, among other artists, and for a damn good reason. And second, almost any given issue, while it might not be funny to modern sensibilities, is an absolute clinic on how to set up a traditional joke format, and more latter-day cartoonists could benefit from learning the rules before they break them. This may make it sound like reading Archie is homework… and, well, it is. But it’s a testament to the power of tradition that the books are still selling at checkout aisles in grocery stores all over the world… B

It’s hard to know what to make of Bayou: Volume One (DC/Zuda) in its present form. The breakout offering from DC’s webcomics experiment zudacomics.com, Bayou reads like a story designed to fill unlimited space. Even at 160 pages, it feels like the mere beginning of a story, an impression only reinforced by some sketches of characters and locations not to be seen until later chapters. It also feels unsatisfying in its present form, but mostly because there isn’t enough of it. Set in Depression-era Mississippi, where the white establishment keeps racial restrictions in place with violence and miscarriages of justice, Bayou focuses on a black girl named Lee whose father is arrested after her white playmate disappears. Lee knows he had nothing to do with the event, however, and she goes searching for her friend in a world populated by helpful-but-cowardly monsters and malevolent forces straight out of an Uncle Remus tale. It’s a captivating, frightening environment, and while Bayou’s story sometimes suffers from poky pacing—or at least it feels poky, with so little of the story available so far—it makes for a provocatively sideways look at an ugly slice of American history… B

Blizzard’s mega-popular RTS videogame StarCraft is all about resource management and careful allocation of largely faceless armies, two things that don’t exactly make for thrilling comics. But Wildstorm has had a hit with a comics spin-off of another popular Blizzard product, World Of Warcraft, and anticipation is running high in the gamer community for the long-awaited game sequel StarCraft 2, so from a marketing standpoint, StarCraft #1 (Wildstorm) makes all the sense in the world. It’s much less promising from a story standpoint. It introduces a squad of human soldiers called the War Pigs, ex-prisoners pressed into service, then betrayed by their commander for some vaguely delineated reason somewhere between combat expediency and “He’s evil.” Years later, they’re called back into service and promised pardons and back pay if they take on a final job: assassinating Jim Raynor, a key figure from the original StarCraft. It all feels suspiciously like a lost chapter of Firefly, with a group of undereducated but spunky outlaws who speak in a peculiarly stylized, clipped way, sneak around the “fringe worlds” avoiding a monolithic regime in which higher powers plot against them. Problem is, the first issue doesn’t give any of them personalities, the action is muddled and confusing, the factions are generally unclear, and the whole thing is a bit of a slog, culminating in a cartoony moment where the bad guy announces his evil scheme and practically cackles. Even for StarCraft addicts, there isn’t much promising here… C-

Batman: The Animated Series and its various offshoots are rightly remembered as some of the best animated television of recent decades. Shepherded by artist Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and many others, the shows emphasized beautifully pared-down art with muscular, heartfelt storytelling. Their best comics spin-offs did the same. The new hardcover Batman: Mad Love And Other Stories (DC) collects some of the best of the best from the comics inspired by the animated Batman, highlighted by the title story, the borderline heartbreaking tale behind the Joker’s long-suffering girlfriend Harley Quinn. These stories have been reprinted before, but it’s still nice to have them in one package… A

Released in softcover for the first time since its debut last year, Incognegro (DC) is one of the most fascinating artifacts to come from the big companies in a while. Written by the excellent novelist Mat Johnson, the racially charged neo-noir plunges big-city investigative reporter Zane Pinchback into the Deep South after his brother is arrested for murdering a white woman back home in Mississippi. Johnson, who is biracial, fearlessly investigates the origins of “going incognegro,” a slang term for light-skinned blacks passing for white. A deft combination of sociological fiction, psychological thriller, and detective story, Incognegro touches on that and other issues—from lynching to miscegenation to racial prejudice—that have lost very little of their power to divide since the story’s 1930s setting. British artist Warren Pleece does a fine job on the illustrations, and even as a first-time comics author, Johnson gets the medium’s rhythms and structure just right… A-

Canadian cartoonist Seth had something of an epiphany a few years back, when he dashed off the quickie graphic novella Wimbledon Green in his sketchbook while he was still mired in the slow-developing graphic novel Clyde Fans. For years, his output had been limited, but lately the floodgates have been open, and while Clyde Fans still sits unfinished, the tide of sketchbooks, memoirs, sculptures, magazine covers, and anthology designs that Seth has turned out over the past five years have more than compensated. The latest project to roll swiftly off Seth’s drawing board is George Sprott 1894-1975 (D&Q) an oversized, hardbound graphic novella that expands on a series of serialized one-pagers Seth drew for The New York Times Magazine. The title character is a fictional arctic adventurer turned TV host, and the story presents a Citizen Kane-like series of reflections on the late hero’s life and times. Seth strains a little for poignancy in some places, but in an indie-comics marketplace glutted with memoirs, abstraction, and clichéd melodrama, its refreshing to see an artist construct a subtle, well-realized made-up world out of half-forgotten places and characters who might’ve-been. George Sprott’s subject is nothing less than mortality itself, and how a person, a place, an emotion, and even a memory can cease to exist. What’s wonderful about Seth’s current high level of production is that he’s working hard to assure his own enduring legacy, while also mapping out a lived-in vision of our collective past to supplant the one rapidly fading from the popular consciousness… A-

Like a lot of DC’s classic Silver Age characters, The Doom Patrol were generally cooler in concept than in execution. Until Marv Wolfman in the ’80s and Grant Morrison in the ’90s found ways to pay homage to—and then subvert—the Doom Patrol mythology, the super-team was best remembered for having a short-lived series that ended with all the heroes dying, years before killing off superheroes became fashionable. Showcase Presents: The Doom Patrol Volume One (DC) starts with the 1963 issue of My Greatest Adventure that introduced wheelchair-bound Dr. Niles Caulder and his trio of freaky crime-fighters: the bandaged energy-being Negative Man, the expanding Elasti-Girl, and the cyborg known as Robotman. Over the course of the 21 issues reprinted in Showcase Presents, The Doom Patrol fight bizarre villains—like the talking gorilla Monsieur Mallah and his brain-in-a-jar master—while forwarding an outsiders-are-welcome agenda uncannily like that of Marvel’s X-Men, which debuted three months later. Unfortunately, Arnold Drake’s choppy storytelling and Bruno Premiani’s stiff linework renders even their coolest ideas kind of square. The original Doom Patrol comics are best enjoyed by those capable of reading between the lines to see what they should be… C+

The best part of The Batman Annuals: Volume One (DC) may be Michael Uslan’s introduction, where the Dark Knight producer waxes nostalgic about picking up these comics when they were originally published in the early ’60s, and how a bargain-priced “80-Page Giant” could provide many hours of entertainment to a kid back then. Too bad DC didn’t re-package these annuals in a way better suited to their contents. A straight-up issue-by-issue reprint—at a price actual children might be able to afford—would’ve been the ideal way to enjoy this motley assortment of Golden and Silver Age Batman stories. Once they’re slapped between hardcovers and imprinted as part of the “DC Comics Classics Library,” The Batman Annuals become just another overpriced collection of mildly diverting pop ephemera… B-

From the ’50s through the ’70s, Canadian cartoonist Doug Wright drew a weekly strip—first called “Nipper,” and later “Doug Wright’s Family”—for a Montreal newspaper’s weekly supplement. The Collected Doug Wright: 1949 To 1962 (D&Q) is the first of a two-volume set dedicated to reprinting a good chunk of the Nipper/Family strips alongside samples of Wright’s other commercial art and a fairly detailed mini-biography by journalist Brad Mackay. The book itself is a thing of beauty—large, shiny, and red, and handsomely laid out by Canadian cartoonist Seth—but the presentation would be pointless if the strip weren’t so terrific. Working without dialogue and in the rigid confines of the “mischievous little kid” genre, Wright was able to capture the idyllic look and mood of mid-20th-century suburban life, as well as the way children inflict casual anarchy on the world their parents have planned out so carefully. Wright’s punchlines were rarely forced or exaggerated; his Nipper would cause trouble by dragging a cat around in a shopping bag, stuffing rocks into a car’s front grill, or doing something else annoying but not intentionally malicious. Wright had the rare talent to make parents everywhere say, “I’ve been there,” and then to make them recognize that the little beasts unsettling their lives were also making them more vital. (Consumer note: The gorgeously designed, eternally amusing Collected Doug Wright carries the same list price as the smaller, more dubious Batman Annuals: Volume One. Just sayin’…) A

Pity the writer whose life too well reflects his work; Edgar Allan Poe wrote about psychological torment and man’s darkest impulses, and given his alcoholism and his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, these days it’s nearly impossible to separate his stories from the man himself. Poe #1 (Boom Studios), a new miniseries featuring the dead author, looks to exploit that connection by using Poe’s detective fiction and general obsession with the macabre as inspiration for a story that positions the man as tormented soul (naturally) working to help his brother solve a series of murders. The first issue has its share of spooky, character-appropriate phantoms, including the requisite raven, visits to the graveyard, and Poe’s never-ending grief for his lost love. Dean Kotz’s art is serviceable, though murky, and J. Barton Mitchell’s script does a decent job at not being too heavy-handed with the references, but the whole thing falls apart once the “mystery” comes into focus. Poe’s transformation from conflicted self-loather to Sherlock Holmes knock-off doesn’t bode well for the story to follow. Those with a hankering for author-turned-hero adventures would do better off just watching Time After Time again…C+

It’s hard to be a slasher fan. Even stripped of the potentially horrifying gender politics, the premise of a slavering psychopath cutting, slicing, and stabbing his way through cabins full of sexually active morons doesn’t lend itself to thoughtful plotting. But there’s a certain inexplicable charm to over-the-top gore and one-note characterization that’s hard to explain, let alone justify, to the uninitiated. Enter Hack/Slash Omnibus Vol. 2 (Devil’s Due), the adventures of “final girl” Cassie, her hulking mutant best friend, Vlad, and their ongoing battle against fiends, demons, cyber-sociopaths, and every variety of mad killer under the moon. Vol. 2 collects the first 17 issues of the ongoing series, and it’s a blast to read; between Cassie’s idealized goth-girl hotness (with potential lesbian overtones!), the liberal and good-natured fan service, and guest appearances by Dr. Herbert West (of Re-Animator fame) and the Suicide Girls, there’s no end to the geeky delights. Sure, the pacing is often rushed and the plotting haphazard, but Cassie’s backstory has an effective weight, and her friendship with Vlad, a Lenny-type without the rabbit-smothering issues, is surprisingly sweet. Plus, the whole thing is so obviously meta that there’s no shame in waving one’s butcher blade high. B+

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