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Comics Panel: August 22, 2008

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In last year's entertaining graphic novel Cairo, writer G. Willow Wilson and artist M.K. Perker spun a fanciful tale of ancient magic and modern evil, well-informed by Wilson's years of filing reportage from the Middle East. In Wilson and Perker's new ongoing Vertigo series Air, the duo continue to blend contemporary concerns with outlandish pulp conventions, telling the story of an airline stewardess who's recruited to join a shadowy band of passenger-jet-bound terrorist-fighters, then learns—through the intervention of a sexy secret agent of indeterminate ethnic origin—that the organization is actually responsible for a far-reaching hijacking plot. The first issue covers so much ground that it's hard to believe Air is going to be open-ended, but it's an entertaining read with some serious points to make about the fluidity of borders in the 21st century. Though nations may claim to control their own airspace, in a practical sense, those who can get aloft and stay aloft can more or less make their own rules…B+

The thematically linked short pieces in Tim Lane's debut collection, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics), all form a piece of what he calls the Great American Mythological Drama. The stories take place along a vaguely defined stretch of scenery haunted by the ghosts of Kerouac, Marlon Brando, and Elvis, where visitors can probably hear the distant strains of a Tom Waits song or The Magnetic Fields' Charm Of The Highway Strip playing in the background. The subjects and the tone of noirish regret are both a bit familiar, and Abandoned Cars doesn't always reach the depths Lane wants to plumb, but he determinedly puts his own spin on things, alternating a self-described autobiographical tale of hopping freight trains, Chris Ware-inspired cut-outs of familiar American figures, and a series of Notes From The Underground-like vignettes that take an unexpectedly cartoonish turn. The best entries are the ones in which Lane operates at his most naturalistic, particularly a pair of tales concerning an estranged husband. And Lane's art, reminiscent of Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes, but with its own unique dark shadings, remains stunning throughout. Here's one to watch… B+

Scott McCloud's groundbreaking 1993 Understanding Comics bowled over a wide swath of readers with its simple, clear, fascinating explanation of the visual language of comics. Newly fledged McCloud fans immediately started looking for his other works, expecting that someone so insightful about the process of comics would naturally create brilliant narrative works himself. But little of his work was in print at the time, apart from an initial color collection of the first issues of his early effort Zot!, and the cartoonish, clunky, lackluster tone of that first volume lead to conventional wisdom about McCloud being "If you can't do, teach." Eventually, more of Zot!'s 36-issue run came out in trade form, but the crucial final planned volume evaporated when publisher Eclipse went under. That's finally been rectified with Zot! The Complete Black And White Collection (Harper), an essential 576-page brick of a book that pulls together issues #11 through #36, with minor exceptions—for instance, for two issues drawn by a guest artist while McCloud was off getting married, he presents his small, scrawly rough draft for the entire story. (He suggests that a later collection of guest work on Zot! might be forthcoming, but it was beyond the scope of this already-huge book.) That aside, this Zot! compilation is a stunning revelation. The packaging alone is fantastic—between issues and arcs, McCloud offers revealing peaks into what was going on in his life when he wrote it, and what he was getting at with his heroes and villains. It shouldn't come as much surprise that the man behind the strip I Can't Stop Thinking! put a lot of thought into the sociological and mythological basis for his supervillains, but even so, the contrast between issues where kid superhero Zot fights bad guys, and McCloud's analysis of what those bad guys represent is fascinating. As to the content itself… Zot! started out as a four-color, all-ages story about a fantastic world where a cocky teenager named Zot fought villains like the reluctant, insane cyborg Dekko and the thuggish Blotch. A girl from our Earth, Jenny Weaver, encountered Zot and longed to live in his simpler, cleaner world, leaving behind her squabbling parents and churlish older brother. By the beginning of this compilation, her desire has bloomed into full-on teen hatred of her world, and an angsty, selfish yearning that makes her resent Zot's confidence, his sweet innocence, and his attempts to make her love her life like he loves his. There's plenty of sock-bam-pow action and comedy in the early issues, like the ongoing confrontations with the "Devoes," crazed revolutionaries with de-evolution guns who want to turn everyone into monkeys and send them back to the jungle. But the stories give way to darker moods, as Zot faces an unstoppable villain and Jenny struggles with her feelings for him—including the inadequacy his seeming perfection raises in her—and her feelings for a boy from her world who's less perfect, but more understanding. Eventually, the stories leave Zot's weird retro-future and focus on Jenny's Earth entirely, and McCloud adopts a meandering, melancholy, personal tone akin to that later found in books like Blankets. The series has its flaws—Jenny often seems irritatingly blinkered, whiny, self-pitying, and self-centered, and watching her dither over her romantic choices can be like reading terrible chick-lit, where men are prizes rather than people. Meanwhile, Zot himself is more shining archetype than nuanced character. Then again, given that McCloud wrote all this in his very early 20s—and in an industry where subtlety and personal stories were mostly uncommon and unheralded—it's easy to cut him slack and admire what he was trying to do. And his marvelously, obsessively detailed black-and-white art isn't nearly as flawed as his self-effacing comments about it would indicate. It's long past time for a critical re-appraisal of these tender, delicate, overwhelmingly ambitious early stories, and what they tried to accomplish as well as what they actually did accomplish… A


Mark Millar is one of the most prolific writers around these days, and one of the least reclusive. That's usually a formula for burnout, but Millar's work has remained high-quality and daring, particularly his creator-owned title Kick-Ass. War Heroes (Image) finds Millar straying from his usual Marvel home for a new series about superpowered U.S. soldiers fighting in the Middle East. It's a daring premise brought to vivid life by the art of Tony Harris (Starman, Ex Machina), and the first issue suggests it'll be worth sticking around to see whether the team makes the blackly comic landing they've set themselves up to stick. For now, it gets a subject-to-reevaluation grade of… B

Me And The Devil Blues: Volume One (Ballantine Del Rey) is worth a look for stunt value alone. In retelling the legend of bluesman Robert Johnson—how he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical proficiency and fame—noted manga artist Akira Hiramoto incorporates Bonnie and Clyde, Jim Crow lynch mobs, supernatural mysteries, and the hardscrabble life of Southern sharecroppers into a sprawling narrative that runs 525 pages and is nowhere near complete. Hiramota's art is an unusual, eye-catching blend of conventional manga technique and something scratchier and darker (more like what a comics fan would expect from a Vertigo artist), and his storytelling is compellingly twisty. One major demerit: his dialogue, which in translation reads like it was written by someone who's watched a lot of American movies and listened to a lot of blues records, but hasn't experienced the South firsthand. Though in a way, the cultural disconnect only makes the project more fascinating… B


Though the multiple Legion Of Super-Heroes titles DC has published over the past 50 years have never been the company's biggest sellers, the team has retained such a devoted core of fans that DC keeps trotting out Legion collections—including 12 hardback "Archives," two "Showcase Presents" volumes, and countless TPBs—to an audience willing to buy anything with Cosmic Kid and Bouncing Boy on the cover. But even the hardest of the hardcore may find their patience tried by Legion Of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years Of The Future (DC Comics), a 200-page "celebration" that haphazardly throws together stories from across the decades, leaning hard on anniversary issues that offer a lot of pomp and not a lot of story. Given how continuity-heavy the Legion mythology is—and how many times it's been overhauled—assembling a true "best of" Legion book may be impossible, but some kind of oversized coffee-table book with comics, sketches, timelines, and reminiscences would be more than welcome. 1,050 Years Of the Future is in the ballpark, but it's sitting in the nosebleed seats…C-

Earlier this year, Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's "Raw Jr." project (dedicated to bringing imaginative illustration to children, and vice versa) inaugurated "Toon Books," a series of kid-friendly comics designed and packaged to look like regular children's books. The next wave of "Toon Books" kicks off with Stinky, a thoroughly charming, amusingly drawn story about a swamp monster who tries to scare a little boy away from a nearby town. Too many cartoonists who dabble in kid-lit approach the medium with unearned arrogance, presuming their drafting skills alone will make it easy to crank out a 30-page children's book (while ignoring the basics, like character, story, and a fully realized concept). Newcomer Eleanor Davis won't make anyone forget Kevin Henkes or Mo Willems, but her art is dynamic, cute, and funny in the best comics tradition and her storytelling is concise and purposeful in the best kid-lit tradition. Stinky is remarkably sweet… B+

The second volume of Kerry Callen's long-fallow Halo And Sprocket (Amaze Ink) doesn't actually explain why the protagonist, a young single woman named Katie, is living with a cranky angel and a cheerful robot. But the concept justifies itself with an intriguing blend of the ethereal and the grounded, as the three roomies explore questions ranging from "Why do women shave their legs and not their arms, when their arms are more visible?" to "Why would people find fart noises funny?" to "Why do people think clowns are scary?" The concept sounds a little third-grade, and the book is all-ages friendly and full of simple, broadly cartoony art that would fit fine in a coloring book, but the ways the three characters pick apart human mores and peccadilloes is intelligent, insightful, and frequently giggle-worthy, without being particularly jokey—though it does have an appealing cartoon timing to its interactions. There's no action and no overarching story: The robot, Sprocket, gathers and analyzes data; the angel, Halo, offers a stuffy, disapproving perspective; and Katie accepts that sometimes people just do stuff the way they do stuff, and picking it apart can be frustrating. Together, they reach a lot of authentically interesting conclusions. (For instance, when Halo lets Sprocket experience life as a human, with its series of belches and sneezes, Katie advises him to cover his mouth when he yawns; when he protests, and is told that yawning is unattractive, he asks acerbically whether unattractive people are expected to cover their faces with their hands all the time.) It's rare to find a book this balanced—it's pitched to answer an endless series of kiddie "Why?" questions, and to get adults pondering assumptions and philosophy at the same time. It's also cute, clever, and short enough to not wear out its welcome… B+

The straight-to-DVD movie Lost Boys: The Tribe tried to recapture the groove of 1987's cult-hit vampire-glam movie Lost Boys, and failed definitively. The simultaneously launched four-issue miniseries Lost Boys: Reign Of Frogs (Wildstorm) takes a completely different, and much more interesting path. It centers on vampire-hunting brothers Edgar and Alan Frog (played in the first film by Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, the former of whom reprised his character for The Tribe), and opens up a whole mythology not hinted at in the original film. Turns out America was founded by colonists fleeing European vampires, and the Revolutionary War was an attempt to get free of lingering vampire influence. Also, men like Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were noted vampire-hunters, and the American government has always been aware of the bloodsucker problem. The series (written by The Tribe screenwriter Hans Rodionoff) is so far a little campy and a little horror-y without committing to either, but it gets points for taking things in a new and more interesting direction. Final tally will come when we see whether it actually arrives anywhere. In the meantime, at least Joel Gomez and Don Ho's art is crisply competent… B


New to DC's 25-year in-joke Ambush Bug? Put it this way. The first page of his latest incarnation, the six-issue miniseries Ambush Bug: Year None, features the Source Wall—a fabled barrier protecting "the Source, the greatest of mysteries," first described by Jack Kirby—offering up some leering sexual innuendo about Darkseid, making a Michael Jackson joke, and bemoaning the loss of the Kirby days. Then things get silly. While Ambush Bug was first introduced as a villain in a Superman/Doom Patrol crossover in the mid-'80s, he's since become a running joke, a goofball who makes random cameos in DC books and intermittently gets solo-project opportunities to lampoon the DC Universe. The new miniseries, written by Bug creator Keith Giffen, starts with Ambush Bug learning about the murder of "Jonni DC, Continuity Cop"—a Mxyzptlk-like sprite that used to police the DC universe—and grumpily accepting his role in solving the crime. The story plays heavily and morbidly on the "women in refrigerators" phenomenon in comics: Random female bodies litter the pages, an enemy lobs dead women at Ambush Bug with a catapult, and Ambush Bug even finds out, when he tries to buy a fridge, that a built-in corpse is "a standard feature." That's par for the course in this inside-baseball series, which is rife with visual gags, obscure DC characters, meta-humor featuring Ambush Bug bitching about his revamped thought balloons, and a section playing on the horrible "hep" writing in '60s comics. Much of it will go over the heads of anyone who hasn't been following DC with obsessive devotion for the past 40 years, and even so, what little plot there is isn't particularly coherent. Somewhere inside the niche of obsessive DC fans, there's a nested niche for Ambush Bug fans, and waaaaay back in that tiny narrow corner is where this particular bit of flailing wackiness belongs… C+

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was organized to protect comic-book shop owners from insane prosecutions, like the case of Georgia retailer Gordon Lee, who spent three years and $100,000 fighting a charge of distributing a comic deemed obscene to a minor. (On Free Comic Book Day, Lee's store was handing out, among other things, Alternative Comics #2. It featured an excerpt from Nick Bertozzi's decidedly non-obscene The Salon, which included a tiny drawing of a nude model posing for Picasso.) The jam book Liberty Comics (Image) features new material from Darwyn Cooke, Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker, Sergio Aragones, and others, all vaguely connected to the theme of censorship. The best stuff—particularly Cooke's Twilight Zone-ish tale—makes it worth the price, even if the money wasn't going to a good cause… B+


The Center For Cartoon Studies continues its series of juvenile-focused comic-book biographies with an adaptation of Henry David Thoreau's classic naturalist memoir Walden. John Porcellino's Thoreau At Walden (Hyperion/Disney Book Group) pares down the author's words to a few essential passages, letting the simple, childlike drawings convey Thoreau's wonder at the passing of the seasons, his communion with the animals, and the simple pleasures of eating food he's grown himself. Detailed end-notes provide the necessary historical context, but in terms of gaining a basic understanding of Thoreau—his philosophy as much as his life—Porcellino's spare art and well-chosen excerpts provide a clean, clear introduction to one of the most important thinkers in American history. A-