September 24, 2010

If Love And Rockets: New Stories #3 (Fantagraphics) only contained Gilbert Hernandez’s 36-page “Scarlet By Starlight,” it would still be one of the most significant new comics of the year. Set on a distant planet where a small band of Earth scientists exploit the monkey-like natives, “Scarlet” is a shocking, haunting story about how guilt clings to people like tiny hairs. It also serves as an illustration of how small ethical lapses open the door to much larger ones. Gilbert’s second story in New Stories #3, “Killer * Sad Girl * Star,” is much stranger, changing the details of the “Scarlet By Starlight” into an old movie that a curvy, jailbait B-picture starlet is being asked to remake. The teen bombshell then embarks on her own surreal, seamy adventure that blurs the line between fiction and fact, and brings in some of Gilbert’s older L&R cast members. But as good as those two pieces are, they aren’t the book’s highlight; that honor goes to Jaime Hernandez’s intertwined stories “The Love Bunglers” and “Browntown.” (The latter appears between the two parts of the former, serving as an extended flashback.) “The Love Bunglers” catches longtime fans up on the love life of Maggie Chascarillo as she attends an art opening with her ex-boyfriend Ray Dominguez. Both characters take turns narrating, explaining their expectations and experience of the night, complete with recollections of dreams and shared histories. Meanwhile, on the edges of the story, a stranger lurks. “Browntown” explains who that stranger is via scenes from Maggie’s childhood, during the time when her family was still together and living in a small town far from her beloved barrio of Hoppers. The story takes place over a couple of years as Maggie turns 13, learns some unpleasant secrets about her folks, and takes her cues from her rapidly maturing best friend Letty, to whom she writes spleen-venting letters. And while she’s enduring routine adolescent angst, her younger brother is learning the meaning of sacrifice from some older boys. “The Love Bunglers” and “Browntown” offer the kind of rich, intricate stories—packed with sharp observations about human desire and self-justification—that only an author with 30 years of experience with these characters could write. But readers don’t need to have read all the previous Maggie tales to follow them. Everything a newcomer needs to know is woven neatly into the stories themselves, and although the nuances of the Maggie-Ray relationship will mean more to people who know the characters well, there’s a clear mastery to the way Jaime plays the couple’s fading bruises in “The Love Bunglers” against the sharp stings of “Browntown.” There are acclaimed filmmakers and novelists who can’t do what Jaime Hernandez does—or Gilbert, for that matter. When the two of them are at their most inspired, as they are here, they make almost every other comics creator today look like a fumbling hack… A 

Living in a candy store may sound like every kid’s fantasy, but as Martin Lemelman’s memoir Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood (Bloomsbury) attests, the reality is more than a little bittersweet. With a mother haunted by the Holocaust and shtetl superstitions and a father pining for the bad old days in Stalin’s army, Lemelman’s formative years in Brownsville, Brooklyn were a pungent mixture of old country and new. As with his “memoir” Mendel’s Daughter, which he wrote from his mother’s perspective, much of Two Cents Plain is described in the fractured English of Lemelman’s immigrant parents, with all its shifty syntax and transposed froms and ofs intact. That voice—along with Lemelman’s smudgy pencil sketches, family photos, and scanned childhood artifacts—brings these often-understated vignettes to life, even when they’re recounting something as mundane as attrition warfare with insects. The ever-present roaches aren’t the only thing Two Cents Plain shares with Will Eisner’s tenement stories, and the book doesn’t shy away from the cycles of racial strife and neighborhood death and renewal that characterized Brooklyn following World War II. Like a two-cent seltzer water, this graphic memoir is an unassuming treat, whether sipped a story at a time, or quaffed in one satisfying sitting… A-

When Joe Quesada pulled his infamous “don’t-call-it-a-retcon” in the justifiably reviled “One More Day” storyline in 2007, Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson was retroactively undone in a deal with Mephisto. (That undoing being Mephisto’s bizarre fee for erasing the knowledge of Spider-Man’s no-longer-secret identity from the minds and records of the human race.) With Quesada’s recent storyline, “One Moment In Time,” the Marvel chief tries to polish his turd a little bit—but by the final issue of the arc, The Amazing Spider-Man #641, all he’s made is another mess. The double-sized issue concludes the retcon-of-a-retcon, in which Quesada attempts to retell “One More Day” by filling in gaps and adding another layer of hand-wringing anguish to the turbulent romance of Peter and Mary Jane. There are flashes of poignancy—such as Dr. Strange telling Reed Richards and Tony Stark that Peter Parker, while not the most powerful superhero, is “truly the best of us”—and the rotation of different artists throughout the book (including the restrained, fine-lined, but sadly paint-free Paulo Rivera, and of course, Quesada himself) actually works, giving the story the fragmentary feel that fits such a reality-altering brouhaha. But with the words “ramifications” and “consequences” bandied about by the brow-winkled characters every other panel, it’s hard to read “One Moment In Time” as anything other than Quesada’s belated—and wholly insufficient—apology to Spider-Man fans for “One More Day.” Due to a “scheduling snafu”—or perhaps an underhanded attempt to blunt the anticipated backlash from “One Moment In Time”—The Amazing Spider-Man #642 was released the same day as #641. The difference is night and day: First of all, Mark Waid wrote it, and this first installment of his new “Origin Of The Species” arc parallels the “Brand New Day” storyline that immediately followed “One More Day”—at least in the sense that it seeks to present a solid, punchy Spider-Man adventure after the gravitas and continuity-tangled nonsense of the preceding slog. Bringing together dangling threads from a few previous Spider-Man storylines (including Waid’s own “The Gauntlet” from a few months back), the debut of “Origin” is a warmly scripted, swiftly paced onslaught of classic Spider-Man villains and equally classic Peter Parker sad-sack-isms. Waid reunites with his “Gauntlet” and Potter’s Field teammate Paul Azaceta, whose chalky, blocky, brilliant art captures a new kind of Peter—and signals a breath of fresh air… #641: C-; #642: B+

EC Comics had the best artists and the most charismatic owner, but EC’s horror titles were relatively classy in comparison to what some of the smaller publishers were pumping out in the pre-Comics Code Authority era. The Greg Sadowski-edited anthology Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics Of The 1950s (Fantagraphics) collects stories from books with titles like Weird Thrillers,Chamber Of Chills, Beware, Mister Mystery, and Blue Bolt Weird Tales Of Terror, featuring art by the likes of Jack Cole, Basil Wolverton, Al Williamson, Wally Wood, Joe Kubert, and Frank Frazetta (some of whom were also EC regulars at the time). The colors are garish, the stories grotesque, and the art much freakier than the norm. Where EC’s comics are more akin to the drive-in fodder of American International Pictures, the comics in Four Color Fear are the equivalent of a David F. Friedman grindhouse roughie: lurid, exploitative, and just plain wrong. In short, this book is awesome. Making it even more awesome is Sadowski’s annotation: Four Color Fear ends with brief but informative commentary on each story, complete with comparisons to the other pulp titles that were around in the early ’50s. A lot of the actual comics in this book are more noteworthy for their gaminess than their quality, but the layer of scholarship is enough to make reading about decaying zombies and devil-worshippers seem almost ennobling… A- 

The best so far of DC’s recent revival of its classic war-comics titles in one-shot form, Weird War Tales leads off strong with Darwyn Cooke’s bizarre story about a monster mash involving great military figures of the past. It’s utterly ridiculous, but skillfully executed, and it’s very much in keeping with the original title that brought the world insane concepts like Creature Commandos. The story Ivan Brandon contributes to the issue isn’t outstanding, but the accompanying art by Nic Klein is, and the final story, a Dinosaur Island riff by Jan Strnad, is a great capper. Of all the war books DC’s put out in the current cycle, this is the one that’s best suited to becoming a recurring anthology, in spite of—or maybe because of—the over-the-top ideas… A-

Mixing the mythos of The Elephant Man and Jack The Ripper is, of course, nothing new in comics; Alan Moore did it years ago in From Hell. That said, there’s never been an Elephant Man like the one Eric Powell foists upon his alternate version of Victorian England in Billy The Kid’s Old Timey Oddities And The Ghastly Fiend Of London #1 (Dark Horse). The start of this four-issue series—illustrated with rubbery, retro weirdness by Kyle Hotz—kicks the paranormal predilection of Powell’s series The Goon back a couple of centuries: Following his exploits in the Old West, Billy The Kid becomes a supernatural investigator with a distaste for “DE-forms.” Nonetheless, he and his team of adventurers are brought to London to help a mutated man named Joseph Merrick—although he’s much more of a sight than the Merrick history tells us of—who’s suspected of the gruesome Whitechapel murders. Billy’s uncouth, unvarnished reaction to paranormal oddity makes him, comically, more of a monster than the hideous creatures he’s dealing with, and while the plot is lightweight, it’s more than made up for in fun, grisly atmosphere—not to mention the first part of a breezy Goon backup story… B+

It takes flawless execution, or at least a mighty gimmick, to make a zombie book worthwhile reading these days. We Will Bury You (IDW), which collects the four issues in the miniseries, doesn’t achieve either. Superficially, this is the story of a flapper and her Ukrainian girlfriend flouting sexual convention and taking potshots at jazz-age misogyny while fending off the undead. In practice, not much roars in this vision of the ’20s, and aside from a Coney Island freak show, there isn’t a lot here to suggest the supposed setting. Brea Grant, who starred as the speedy Daphne Millbrook on Heroes, teams up with brother Zane on the clunky, tone-deaf script (sample: “Even though you want to eat me, I somehow still feel bad for tripping you”), and 30 Days Of Night’s Ben Templesmith provides the blood-spattered cover. But he would have been well advised to stay far, far away… D 

In the days when newspaper comics were the class of the industry and comic books were the gauche latecomers, many of the biggest comic-book properties launched daily strips that displayed a higher standard of craft and storytelling than the titles that spawned them. Archie: The Complete Daily Newspaper Comics 1946-1948 (IDW) collects the first two years of a strip that in recent years has evolved into generic gag-a-day, but in its early years—as steered by original Archie artist Bob Montana—alternated quick jokes with long stories that sometimes took months to play out. All the Archie elements remain the same: Go-getting teenager Archie Andrews deals with his dueling love interests Betty and Veronica, his woman-hating chowhound pal Jughead, and so on. But Montana’s art is more detailed and expressive than what came later for Archie and his gang, and Montana’s grasp of teenage rituals actually feels fairly modern, not frozen in time the way so many old Archie comics do. (Sure, the kids may be driving jalopies and doing the jitterbug, but their concerns are more universal.) The jokes range from corny to nonexistent, but on the whole, this set of Archie strips is so vibrant that it’s like encountering the Riverdale bunch for the first time… A-

Caricature is a bit of a dying art, but there’s still a place for it, especially in a celebrity-obsessed culture like ours that goes out of its way to make its idols look even better than they already do. That’s why we need Drew Friedman, whose precise, pointillist style has been putting the rich and famous to the sword for decades. His new collection, Too Soon?: Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010 (Fantagraphics), features another round of his inimitable caricatures, which manage to make everyone from venal creeps to well-meaning politicians look alternately hideous and noble. Friedman is still at the top of his game, and while he isn’t as savage alone as he is when working alongside his brother Josh, there’s plenty of nastiness on display here, accompanied by enjoyable commentary by the artist concerning the reactions the pieces received from the targets of their satire—which are often pretty nasty themselves… B+

One of the lesser-known lights of the Golden Age, illustrator Mort Meskin was a prolific workhorse whose angular, action-packed style and use of deep shadow effects would prove a huge influence on Steve Ditko. From Shadow To Light: The Life And Art Of Mort Meskin (Fantagraphics), a new biography of Meskin compiling exhaustive interviews with his peers and extensive cooperation from his sons, doesn’t lack for material. It also has plenty of great anecdotes, and through quality reproductions, it skillfully makes its case that its subject was a very talented artist. The problem is, Meskin didn’t work on many high-profile titles, didn’t create any iconic characters, and had an interesting but not fascinating personal life, so it’s hard to pin down exactly the potential audience for the book. It’s a worthwhile effort, but likely for Golden Age devotees only… B-

Partly to drum up interest in their Jim Shooter-penned reboots of the series, Dark Horse has been sporadically releasing reprint editions of classic Gold Key comics. The latest is Mighty Samson Archives Vol. 1 (Dark Horse), featuring the post-apocalyptic adventures of the heroic mutant in monster-plagued “N’Yark.” Although pricey, this is a good pick-up for those looking for an introduction to the Gold Key aesthetic of the ’60s: the gorgeous painted covers, the dynamic, retro-futuristic art (mostly by the great Frank Thorne here, with a few issues by Jack Sparling), and action-packed storylines. The stories are a bit better than usual, too, coming from the pen of Captain Marvel scribe Otto Binder. Nobody needs a complete collection of these books, but if you only have one, this is a fine candidate… B

The announcement of The Simon And Kirby Superheroes (Titan) was a bit perplexing, since the publisher released a solid collection of the same material called The Best Of Simon And Kirby only last year. But the new book will definitely make fans of the dynamic duo sorry they didn’t wait a little longer. The Simon And Kirby Superheroes is a monster, nearly 500 pages of lovingly restored material, again supervised by Simon himself, with the cooperation of Kirby’s estate. It’s also in an oversized format that shows off the changes, and it’s crammed with as much of the team’s collaborative efforts as the editors could get permission to reprint. It lacks much of the exhaustive notes by Mark Evanier that have marked previous Kirby archive editions, but there’s a fine intro by Neil Gaiman, and plenty of examples of why Simon and Kirby made such a sublime (and sometimes ridiculous) team. Those who ponied up for the Best Of (claimed at the time to be the first of a series) are probably feeling like chumps, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a major release. A-