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November 5, 2010

Lynda Barry follows up her beautiful memoir/how-to collage, What It Is, with Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book (Drawn And Quarterly), a book that moves beyond the generalized subject of how artistic creativity gets beaten out of us as we get older, and focuses more specifically on drawing. “Why do we stop drawing?” Barry asks throughout the book. “Why do we start?” Picture This is far more rambling than What It Is (which was itself very freeform), with page after page of loosely related paintings and sketches broken up by the occasional Marlys strip or illustrated essay. And though it’s divided into four sections, Barry doesn’t really build much on her initial ideas about the great societal “DON’T” that stops us from expressing ourselves on a page. Still, even though Picture This is little more than a sketchbook with a theme, the sketches are lively, and the theme profound. Barry writes about how she’s heard “you can’t draw” for her entire cartooning career, and provides a simple, elegant reply: “If I can’t draw, what am I doing?” It’s an inspiring thought, from a different kind of instructional manual, one that offers hundreds of examples of how art is mostly a matter of picking up a pen and starting to scrawl… B+

Fans of Joss Whedon’s science-fiction TV series Firefly have spent a long, frustrating time waiting to delve into the history of Shepherd Book. When the show was abruptly cancelled, it had only begun to hint that its placid man of the cloth was more than he appeared to be, and the disappointing box-office showing of the film follow-up Serenity put the kibosh on a planned sequel that would have answered the fans’ questions, so Whedon and company promised to eventually take up the story in comics. The long-awaited, repeatedly delayed original graphic novel Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale (Dark Horse) finally answers those questions, but in a disappointingly brief, nuance-free fashion. It has its share of tricks: It starts with a lead-in to Book’s final Serenity scene, then moves backward in time to his youth, offering a series of portraits of him that each follow from the next: how he came to religion from the military, how he came to the military from the streets, how he came to the streets before that, and so forth. The problem is that the scenes all progress so patly from each other that there’s very little sense of a life being lived in the margins or the interim. It’s more like reading an outline for a biography than a stand-alone work. There’s little sense of the man or the personality; he’s been reduced to a few nouns describing his professions over the years. The story by Joss and Zack Whedon is bare-bones, and Chris Samnee’s art is similarly stripped-down. After all the build-up, this book could have been an event, but it’s so short and simple that it feels like a curt “Fine, here you go already.” And there’s absolutely nothing personal or universal about it that would recommend it to anyone who isn’t already an obsessive Firefly fan… C

Another Dark Horse release that has everything Shepherd’s Tale lacks: Jason Little’s Shutterbug Follies follow-up Motel Art Improvement Service, a terrific standalone hardcover that’s rich enough to support a film adaptation, but makes such good use of the medium that it would be a shame to budge it from its intended shape. Shutterbug protagonist Bee starts the story by heading out on a cross-country bike trip that’s quickly derailed by a close encounter with a car full of assholes; washing up at a dull-looking motel, she runs across a man who’s secretly swapping out the rooms’ generic art for surreal “improved” versions of his own design. Her social (and sexual) pursuit of him is delicate, humanistic adventure with a bit of quirk, but once he explains what he does and why, and the story moves on, it expands to incorporate action, suspense, and a dose of slapstick. Little’s mildly cartoony art style is unfussy enough to be friendly and accessible without putting undue realism on a surreal story, but he’s accomplished at designing unusual characters without caricaturing them, and the whole book has a richly idiosyncratic feel that recalls a more playful, lively version of Ghost World, but in rich color. This isn’t Serious High Comic Art to be placed on the shelf alongside Maus, but it’s something equally good: a book that perfectly, skillfully accomplishes everything it sets out to do… A

The Monte Beauchamp-curated Blab has long been the most intensely art-minded of the major comics anthologies, and now that it’s been reincarnated as an annual hardcover series, Beauchamp doubles down on Blab’s speciality. Blab World #1 (Last Gasp) devotes maybe 10 percent of its 120 pages to what could be classified as “comics”—though the Blab version of comics is more like abstract pictures with loosely related captions than conventional panels with word balloons. The rest is dedicated to the usual Blab mix of full-page illustrations and articles about pop-culture history. The centerpiece of the book is a section called “Artpocalypse,” in which various avant-garde cartoonists and painters offer their interpretation of the end-times, complete with flood, fire, demons, and bomb-pops. As for the articles, they run the gamut from a Bill North piece about the proliferation of skulls on the covers of pulp magazines to a Steven Heller appreciation of R. Crumb’s Weirdo covers and a James Lowe roundup of odd WWII propaganda. As has always been the case with Blab, the work ranges from stunningly visionary to “bad grad-school art show,” and the articles—outside of the WWII propaganda story—are too skimpy, and too rooted in the past. (The Weirdo article is especially disappointing, since it includes only seven examples of Crumb’s covers, none of which are actually discussed by Heller.) Beauchamp’s design sense is as impressive as ever, and it’s heartening to see him continuing to use the Blab name to promote the intersection of pop, pulp, and art. But even with the change in format and emphasis, Blab remains predictable in its contents and approach. It would be great if Blab World #2 could look more like the product of 2011 than something that could have just as easily come out any time in the past 30 years… B 

Jed McGowan’s spare, unsettling new graphic novel Lone Pine (Adhouse) features so many slow zoom-ins and “inessential” frames that it almost prompts the question “Are you sure you want to tell this story in a comic book?” Or it would if not for a few graphical gambits—like the ominous silhouettes that populate many of its pages, or the naïve MS Paint-aided angles on buildings—that feel perfectly suited to comics, and perfectly of a piece with the story’s dreamlike, half-finished mystique. Lone Pine opens on an empty car with a bumper buried in a tree, and a note that reads “gone to think in woods.” The car and note belong to Jasper, a guy whose girlfriend Jacqueline became involved with some rough characters and has cut herself off from him as a safety measure. Answers are hinted at, but Lone Pine remains coy with the details, rendering a midnight meeting of the nameless bad guys in almost symbolic abstraction, and providing empty word balloons that suggest, but don’t spell out. If Lone Pine were any longer, readers would be justified in demanding some answers. As is, it feels like a dream that returns in flashes throughout the day, but stubbornly refuses to become whole… B+

Top Shelf has been keen to add kids’ titles in recent years, and American Elf creator James Kochalka is happy to oblige with his scatterbrained narrative approach and dedicated anti-craftsmanship—that is, whenever he isn’t too busy bringing the same powers to bear on kid-unfriendly fare like the scatological Superfuckers. Johnny Boo And The Mean Little Boy is the fourth in his series of Casper-esque tales, and the first that would likely be enjoyed by anyone over the age of 6. The story of ghostly pals Johnny and Squiggle is as slight as ever—which makes the frequent chapter headings feel like a bit of a wink—but the gags are a bit slyer than previous installments, perhaps to ensure that they stay on pace with the comedic sensibilities of Kochalka’s two growing sons. (Sample dialogue: “I’m busy playing butterfly with my friend, the Mean Little Boy.” “Oh, he sounds nice.”) Kochalka can’t avoid his baser instincts forever, though, and welcome or not, bodily functions eventually sneak into the story. Too bad there wasn’t room for the Ice Cream Monster this time around… B-

Stan Lee broke major ground in 1964 when he co-created Daredevil, an edgy superhero who had to deal with the very real burden of disability. There’s no reason to believe that, five decades later, Lee would be able to put a fresh spin on the idea—but that doesn’t excuse Stan Lee’s Soldier Zero #1 (Boom!). The first of three new Lee creations that will be debuting in their own series between now and January, Soldier Zero is written by former Action Comics scribe Paul Cornell and drawn by Superman alum Javier Pina. But Lee rightly deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the character’s wretched conception. The book tells the origin of its titular hero, paraplegic Afghan War vet Stewart Trautmann, who winds up liberated by an Iron Man-esque suit of alien armor. Pina’s art is dull, rigid, and candy-coated, and Cornell’s script is stilted and lurching—that is, when he's not delivering downright nonsensical lines such as “I got Semper Fi written through me like bacon.” Worse than that, though, is the comic’s superficial, PSA-like attempt to raise awareness of the plight of the wheelchair-bound. Things like wheelchair access are, of course, serious concerns in the real world—but you’d never know it from reading Soldier Zero, which distills a complex issue into gangs of snickering children and patronizing shopkeepers who plaster their doors with multiple “Wheelchairs not allowed” signs. It might be commendable that Lee and Cornell tackle the subject of disability—that is, if their treatment of it didn’t feel clueless at best, exploitative at worst. Not to mention abysmally executed all around… D-

While Kick-Ass’ lackluster performance at the box office will likely prevent a film sequel, Mark Millar continues the story in Kick-Ass 2 #1 (Icon). Following the first series, Hit Girl has taken a break from crime-fighting, but she trains Kick-Ass as he prepares for team-ups with fellow “MySpace superheroes.” This entails Kick-Ass, in costume, taking the train downtown, meeting a Columbia student with a baseball bat wrapped in tinfoil, and beating people in public. The ludicrous plot doesn’t get any help from the dialogue, which is loaded with pop-culture references that are mostly outdated or tasteless. And the titular character is as obnoxious as ever. The only semblance of real drama comes through Hit Girl’s story, as she struggles to live a regular child’s life, even though killing people is much more satisfying. The book is partially saved by John Romita Jr.’s pencils, given uncharacteristic smoothness by Tom Palmer’s ink washes and Dean White’s lush colors. Romita’s classic style, largely unchanged since the ’80s, works well in contrast to Millar’s script, lending the book some much-needed levity… C- 

Ex-science-villain Zack Overkill is out of witness protection and working for the good guys in Incognito: Bad Influences #1 (Icon), and his new assignment should be a familiar one to readers of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ previous collaborations: infiltrate an international terror organization. The plot’s similarity to the pair’s Sleeper is undeniable, and while Bad Influences doesn’t offer the psychological depth of that Wildstorm classic, it’s a welcome opportunity for Brubaker and Phillips to expand on their world populated by pulp-hero archetypes. As the action shifts from the street-level thuggery of the first Incognito into the realm of Steranko-esque spy games, the creative team doesn’t lose the hard-boiled edge it’s become known for, particularly in the characterization of Overkill. The adjustment in Overkill’s line of work hasn’t translated to his attitude, and while his amorality has diminished since the first series, he maintains a level of ambiguity that makes it difficult to predict where his loyalties will lie as the story progresses. As the story grows to incorporate a wider range of genre elements, Phillips’ evocative art grounds the events in a stark reality by combining the tight close-ups and heavy shadows of his crime comics with the intense action and streamlined design of his superhero work. Colorist Val Staples uses unnatural neon shades during the fantastic scenes, and their contrast with the subdued palette of Zack’s civilian life emphasizes the difference between his two worlds, while his struggle to belong in either one gives the story added substance. In spite of the rehashed plot elements, Incognito: Bad Influences has enough of its own identity to set itself apart from its predecessors, and looks to be the start of another memorable Brubaker-Phillips partnership… B 

The synergy between comics and other media has been profitable for both sides; movies and TV shows get an additional marketing outlet, and comics get a new infusion of readers. But, as illustrated by Metalocalypse: Dethklok #1 (Dark Horse), artistically, it doesn’t always pan out. There isn’t anything really wrong with it; the script (by the show’s Brendan Small and Jon Schnepp, plus Dark Horse’s Jeremy Barlow), involving a line of Dethklok frozen foods, would make a perfectly serviceable episode. Lucas Marangon’s art is also fine, but adds nothing to the overall look of the book, using a loosely interpreted template drawn straight from TV. So why bother? The story is also a bit padded—an appearance by Dr. Rockso is pure fan service—but that doesn’t sink the book. It isn’t a failure by any standard, and it should appeal to super-fans. But the fact that no one involved does much to take advantage of the medium, making it worthwhile as a Dethklok comic as opposed to another piece of Dethklok merchandising, makes it a bit of a disappointment… B-

The Ghostbusters franchise gave us two movies—one great, and one in which the heroes defeated the villain through the power of good vibes—and an animated show that lasted five years. The movies are better known, but the television series provided most of the franchise’s ongoing mythology, and the new one-shot, Ghostbusters: What In Samhain Just Happened?! (IDW), fits easily into that world. Peter David’s story has an unquiet spirit, a Halloween party, and secretary Janine Melnitz strapping on a proton pack. The characters fit their familiar roles, and Dan Schoening’s art is cartoony and recognizable without being directly indebted to either the show or the films. It isn’t as funny as it might be, and not all the heroes are well used (poor Winston Zeddemore gets a single line), but it’s crisp, pleasant, and self-contained, which makes it worth more than a dozen distressing rumors about Ghostbusters 3… B 

Detectives Sam Burke and Twitch Williams started out as Spawn’s comic relief, but if Todd McFarlane has anything to say about it, they’ll soon be the stars of their own hourlong, hard-bitten cop procedural. Judging, however, from Sam And Twitch: The Writer (Image)—which compiles the four-issue miniseries—the duo isn’t ready for prime time. A serial killer with a literary bent and a bloodthirsty approach to PR is stalking New York City during a record-breaking blizzard, murdering the innocent and turning them into human pull-quotes. When journalists get wind, they print the text written on the victims, and the murderer expands his readership. Writer Luca Blengino introduces an ultra-competent woman for the pair to get up in arms about, à la issue #15 of the original run (this time, she’s a graphologist named Charlotte Garland), and the trio trudges through snowdrifts and crime scenes until the underwhelming big reveal. Sam and Twitch were at their bantering best during Brian Michael Bendis’ run, but Blengino seems intent on keeping the pair apart, and their chemistry inert. Any dynamism here is provided courtesy of Luca Erbetta’s pencils, but it’s too little, too late for an otherwise mediocre title, and the annoyingly word-bubble-free dialogue has, for some strange reason, been retained. It feels like a long time since we’ve seen Sam and Twitch; The Writer makes the case that we weren’t missing much… C

DC continues to let J. Michael Straczynski do whatever he wants to its flagship character. The latest example is Superman: Earth One, the first of a new line of original graphic novels re-imagining DC’s top heroes. Rather than telling a truly unique story, though, Straczynski recycles elements of his own Supreme Power run—the government salvaging and examining Kal’s spaceship; Clark’s alienated, morally conflicted attitude—and adds a clichéd villain to give Superman a mission to avenge his home planet. Apart from having Krypton be the victim of a mysterious planet-devourer rather than its own hubris, Straczynski sticks close to Superman’s standard origin, beginning when Clark moves to Metropolis, but covering the Smallville days in overly precious flashbacks with the Kents. In Earth One’s superhero-free context, certain plot elements become nonsensical, like Clark trying out for professional sports teams and using his powers to score an employment offer at a high-tech lab. (Isn’t anyone going to test this guy for steroids… or being an alien?) And the way Clark lands his job at the struggling Daily Planet makes it hard to believe hotshot reporter Lois Lane and renegade photojournalist Jim Olsen wouldn’t be able to put the pieces together, considering Clark isn’t wearing the glasses when they first meet him. Shane Davis’ clean, attractive pencils render skyscrapers and alien battleships in heavy detail, but during fight scenes, the characters often have a posed quality that diminishes the sense of movement from panel to panel. While the villain’s ’90s-throwback design is uninspired, Davis’ cardigan-wearing nerd Clark is a dopey take on the character that actually looks modern. If DC is trying to bring in new readers with this line, future books are going to have to embrace bolder ideas in order to differentiate themselves from the hundreds of stories these characters already have to their names… C- 

Created by a Kuwaiti educator-turned-businessman to inspire young people and spread a positive message about Islam, The 99 is a superhero comic about a multicultural team of Muslim superheroes. The team has become something of a sensation both in the Muslim world and in Europe, and now it’s paired up with the quintessential U.S. super-team in JLA/The 99 #1 (DC). With plenty of Americans losing their minds about the most harmless expressions of the Islamic faith, the book couldn’t have come at a better time. But creating goodwill and providing a positive example is one thing, and putting out a decent comic book is another. Stuart Moore and Fabian Nicieza do their best with a standard threat-from-another-world storyline, and honestly, JLA/The 99 is no worse than any other big superhero team-up book. But it’s also no better, and Tom Derenick’s interior art never lives up to the Starro-inspired cover by Felipe Massafera. Inoffensive, well-meaning, and probably necessary, it’s also inessential, and the novelty surely won’t be enough to sustain all six issues of the miniseries… B-

DC Comics published its first magazine in 1935, and for its diamond anniversary, it’s releasing all sorts of commemoratives, tie-ins, and promotional materials. Most of these are pretty inessential, but none of them are likely to be as handsome as 75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Mythmaking (Taschen). The gargantuan hardcover was written with enthusiasm and obvious affection by Legion Of Super-Heroes scribe Paul Levitz, but the writing isn’t the draw. Its biographies and background are worthwhile, but contain little new insight for longtime comics fans, and the attempt to tell the histories of various characters is made into a predictable muddle by recent continuity-jumbling developments. The real attraction is the book’s stunning graphic design and layout; it’s no surprise, coming from German artbook publisher Taschen. The skillful use of DC’s huge archive and clever inserts like fold-out calendars are a plus… B+

The latest installment of Kazu Kibuishi’s original-graphic-novel series, Amulet Book Three: The Cloud Searchers (Graphix) is the first disappointing one. Kibuishi has created a rich, expansive fantasy world full of quirky characters and grand adventure, built on the scope of a Hayao Miyazaki film, and with the attention to detail and beautiful art of the master’s movies as well. But Cloud Searchers goes a bit too far into homage, with an extended search for a lost floating city that closely recalls Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle In The Sky, and comes across as too derivative. There are a few significant plot advancements, as protagonist Emily again fights to control her new powers instead of letting them control her, and comes to an agreement with one of her seemingly implacable enemies. The book is, as usual for Kibuishi’s work on this series and in the Flight anthologies he curates, beautiful and well-paced, with plenty of breathtaking derring-do and unexpected, creative antagonists. But it doesn’t have as much of a sense of forward movement and discovery as the other two books, which makes it merely good instead of terrific. B

Note: The original version of this column contained a review of Genius Isolated: The Life & Art Of Alex Toth, a review that was found to be fabricated. It has been pulled and the writer will not be contributing to The A.V. Club in any way going forward.