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Comics Panel: November 7, 2008

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After going nearly two years without publishing a new chapter of his epic graphic novel Rusty Brown, Chris Ware returns with an installment that represents the cartoonist at his most and least inspired. Acme Novelty Library #19 (Drawn & Quarterly) opens strong, with an illustrated rendition of a science-fiction short story written by the protagonist's father, Woody, about an ill-fated attempt to colonize Mars. While the art in the SF section stays squarely in Ware-ville, with tiny figures isolated in boxy frames, the writing falls somewhere between classic pulp fiction and the shaky unreliability of a Dan Clowes narrator. The result is a story that begins in hope and ends in horror, like one of Ware's "Rocket Sam" cartoons rendered as something more substantive than a sick joke. The rest of Acme #19 follows Woody Brown from the start of his career writing obits for an Omaha newspaper to his settling down as a monumentally depressed middle-school teacher with a geeky son of his own, and focuses mainly on Woody's first, deeply pathetic sexual relationship. The Woody Brown story is artfully rendered and emotionally painful, but it's well-trod ground for Ware, and lacks both the scope of Rusty Brown's first few installments and the originality of this issue's SF interlude. On the whole though, Rusty Brown is still proceeding nicely. Slowly, but nicely…B+

After the disappointment of last year's tediously scribbly volume, The Best American Comics 2008 (Houghton Mifflin) marks a nice comeback for the series, balancing the usual array of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly artists with more humor strips and thoughtful vignettes. Credit guest editor Lynda Barry for selecting pieces that feature strong narratives and an array of artistic styles, from polished to crude. (Barry even tried to squeeze in a Paul Pope Batman: Year 100 story, but DC balked.) Credit Barry also for submitting a gorgeous illustrated introduction that eloquently expresses why she loves comics. The Best American Comics series still relies too much on excerpts from graphic novels, and still unnecessarily shuns genre work, but it's hard to flip through this book without finding a lot worth reading (and re-reading)… A-

Kudos also to editor Ivan Brunetti for An Anthology Of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories Vol. 2 (Yale University Press), which follows up 2006's classroom-ready volume with another far-reaching set of comics that range from the 1920s to 2008. As with the first book, the genius of this second Anthology is in its organization, which groups pieces not by year or subject, but by association, such that R. Sikoryak and Michael Kupperman's smart-ass postmodernism gives way to Harvey Kurtzman's broad comedy, then Art Spiegelman's art-world-informed experiments, then John Porcellino's autobiography, and so on. Over the course of 400 pages, without drawing a single line of his own, Brunetti still tells a story… A


DC's World War II hero Sgt. Rock was drawn so well and so long by Joe Kubert that anyone else taking him on has a lot to prove. Shi creator Billy Tucci assumes writing and art duties on the new Sgt. Rock: The Lost Battalion, and he deserves credit immediately for offering his own spin on the character. He shows Rock and Easy Company through the eyes of an outsider, a cartoonist/journalist named Kilroy (who draws in an unmistakably Kubert style), and the story's pace alternates between the chaos of war and the dullness of downtime. The smart approach suggests that Tucci has an overall plan in mind for the series. If only his art weren't such an off-putting mix of straight-off-the-pad sketchiness and stiff photorealism, particularly his faces, it would be easier to look forward to more issues… C+

Cleverly introduced as a "lost" hero from the early years of the Marvel Universe, The Sentry is a hero with the power of a "million exploding suns" and a fragile mental state that makes having those powers not always such a good thing. The miniseries The Age Of Sentry collects some tales written (by Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin) and drawn (by Nick Dragotta and others) in high Silver Age style. They're tremendously fun—featuring characters like Cranio, The Man With The Tri-Level Mind, and a celeb reporter named Truman Capote—and the two issues released so far suggest an overarching story behind the homage. But in the meantime, anyone looking for a knowing throwback is in for a treat… B


Marvel's The Dark Knight Returns-influenced label The End presents the purported final adventures of its iconic characters. Iron Man: The End has all the elements to do right by Tony Stark, recruiting David Micheline and Bob Layton, who co-wrote, and in Layton's case, inked Iron Man's adventures for a couple of memorable stints. Unfortunately, this dull outing takes one interesting idea—an aging Stark knows he has to hang up the armor because of neurological problems—and does nothing of interest with it for way too many underrealized pages. Seeing Stark navigate a retirement home in a robotic wheelchair would be more interesting than the dull conflicts seen here, including an easy battle with his most insidious enemy, alcohol… D+

Marvel's Ultimate Universe began in 2000 as a solution to the tangled, newcomer-unfriendly continuity of its classic line. It's more or less stayed true to that mission, keeping the number of titles capped and unifying the overall direction of the universe. Its biggest problem: Apart from Brian Michael Bendis' consistently excellent Ultimate Spider-Man, the first two series of The Ultimates written by Mark Millar and drawn by Bryan Hitch, and the neat Ultimate Galactus minis written by Warren Ellis, the series have been a little lackluster. The five-issue Ultimatum arrives promising to shake things up, and the first issue delivers on that promise, flooding New York and apparently killing off some major characters. It also features some nice art from David Finch, stilted dialogue from Jeph Loeb, and a plot that's pretty much summed up by the preceding sentence. There's little here but a long tease that raises the question: "What will happen next?" A better question: "Is that all there is?"… C

Jeff Lemire wraps up his "Essex County" trilogy with The Country Nurse (Top Shelf), in which title character goes about her day, revealing heretofore-unknown connections between the characters in Tales From The Farm and Ghost Stories, the series' first two volumes. Lemire strains too hard for significance sometimes, and in trying to tie up loose ends, The Country Nurse loses some of the haunted quality that made the first two books so special. Still, it's remarkable that Lemire has completed a work of such artistry and ambition in such a short time. Even when it overreaches, "Essex County" shows rare heart and personality, and establishes Lemire as a comics hero in the making… B+

Before Norwegian cartoonist Jason perfected his shtick—anthropomorphic animals with deadpan expressions, wandering through eccentric pulp narratives—he experimented with a variety of styles and approaches, from symbol-heavy surrealism to absurdist daily funnies. Pocket Full Of Rain (Fantagraphics) collects a good sampling of that early work, and though it's more for Jason devotees interested in his background than for casual comics readers, several of these stories show indications of the artist Jason would become. Best of the bunch: "Two Yrs," in which the expiration date on a box of condoms brings hope to a desperate romantic…B-


DC Comics recently announced that its Minx imprint for teen girls is shutting down in January; Comic Book Resources reported the story with an irritating anonymously sourced comment that the line's failure is "a depressing indication that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all." But that blanket dismissal ignores the fact that an awful lot of the Minx books were fairly samey coming-of-age stories about frustrated young girls dealing with the same issues of family, identity, and art, and after a while they tended to blur together; much as with alternative rock, once it all starts to look the same, it isn't really alternative any more. The latest of the few remaining Minx books highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the line as a whole: Mariko Tamaki's Emiko Superstar is a closely observed story about a shy teenager trying to find her footing in a local freak-art scene that calls to her and frightens her at the same time. Inspired by a girl at its center (who's heavily based visually on Delirium from the Sandman series), Emi gradually recreates herself, though she never really takes center stage in her own story, and the narrative—presented as her journal, complete with crossed-out words and phrases—leaves her disturbingly outside her own story. Steve Rolston's cartoony characters also don't help give the story much weight. Alisa Kwitney's Token is denser, though its story of mild teen rebellion and first love is still fairly bland. It packs in signifiers apparently meant to give it weight—questions of Jewish identity, a cross-cultural romance, a shoplifting habit, a spunky grandma—and angular art by Joëlle Jones, but there's nothing particularly new or driving about it. Both books are competent and admirable in their commitment to underserved ethnic and social communities, but they also both feel calculated and safe, not really two things teen girls are known for looking for in their art… Both: B-

Adam Warren's Empowered series is so self-referential and meta at times that it's hard to say anything about it that the series itself doesn't already say, largely in inter-chapter segments where the blushing heroine talks directly to the reader, explaining and analyzing the series. In Empowered Vol. 4 (Dark Horse), the titular (in two senses) character openly admits yet again that Warren invented her for porny bondage sketches at cons, and that she only gradually developed a personality and a story. She also admits that Vol. 4 contains a lot less bondage and a lot more plot than past installments, which might frustrate longtime readers who are only tuning in for the one thing. Here's something she doesn't say: The series keeps getting better. It's always a little spastic and a lot exploitative, and it's also always fun, but the latest installment further develops Warren's superhero-packed world, which has always felt influenced by the likes of The Tick, Top 10, and Astro City, but with a hard-R vibe and a smirking lack of self-seriousness. This time around, Empowered is up for a superhero award—a "Capey"—and the corresponding ego-boost, plus the need to protect her recently traumatized best friend Ninjette, push her to higher levels of self-awareness and functionality. The plotline featuring a prepubescent, cancer-riddled supervillain wannabe who asks his local "Grant-A-Wish" foundation to arrange a bondage session with Empowered is typical of the entire series: A bit of tongue-in-cheek exploitation that turns out to be surprisingly funny, then even more surprisingly leads to serious plot developments… B


Some months, it feels like Image launches so many new titles that it's impossible to keep up. October was right up there. But two particularly notable titles rise to the top. The five-issue miniseries Back To Brooklyn feels like a lost, geographically challenged installment of The Wire—it's that focused on interrogation rooms, gritty believable dialogue, and the rhythms of cop and hoodlum life. The plot eventually focuses on a Brooklyn mafioso who offers himself up to the cops, then demands to go back to town to retrieve his family, but writers Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti concentrate so much on setting and character that the whole series could just be their protagonist sitting in the station negotiating with the cops, and it'd still be absorbing, and Mihailo Vukelic's oddly mix of heavy lines and soft, painterly textures works extremely well. Even so, Back To Brooklyn still gets left in the dust by the best new Image launch in a long time: Joe Kelly's Four Eyes. The first issue is terrifically rich, texturally and artistically. It opens with a family at the beach in 1934 Queens, then gradually reveals an alternate world where dragons not only exist, but provide a thriving industry only revealed in the issue's final pages. Kelly captures the flavor not only of a vintage otherworldly setting, but of his POV character, a young boy whose father gets caught up in the dragon trade, with horrifying results for both of them. There's no telling where it'll go from here, but artist Max Fiumara and colorist Nestor Pereyra bring Kelly's New York to such vivid life, and with such depth and detail, that readers can probably satisfy themselves just poring over the first terrific issue over and over until a new one comes out… Back To Brooklyn: A-; Four Eyes: A

Speaking of Joe Kelly, his current Image series I Kill Giants could hardly be less like Four Eyes, but it's striking in its own way, most notably in that four issues into its seven-issue run, it's still unclear whether the young protagonist is actually fending off a monstrous evil in a world only she knows is magical, or she's just mentally disturbed. The script reads like something Sam Kieth would come up with, but the sketchy, manga-influenced black-and-white art by JM Ken Nimura gives the series a lacy, attenuated, mobile feel that's very different from Kieth's usual wonky bubblegum texture. This may ultimately be one of those time-will-tell series, depending on which way it jumps at the end (if that isn't obvious), but for the moment there's a fascinating tension at work in the way the series' star, Barbara, vacillates between sympathetic and horrifying from panel to panel. Whether she's crazy or just defending humanity, she's still prickly and sometimes outright hellish in the way she acts out, dismissing the people around her as worthless and weak because they don't see what she sees. Plenty of teenagers feel like they're alone and misunderstood, but this one doesn't try to fit in, earn sympathy, or even strike out on her own with art, she just radiates nastiness toward the norms around her, including her own family, and in the process, she becomes hateful no matter how much she's suffering. Too bad this wasn't a Minx book; this is the kind of edgy, wholly different coming-of-age story the line really could have used… B+


Videogame tie-in comics aren't normally too promising, but Wildstorm's companion series to the hot, nausea-inducingly jumpy Mirror's Edge gets off to a solid start, with a noticeably La Femme Nikita-like story of a prickly, beautiful young woman coached and trained for the rigors of a challenging job by an older mentor who may not have her best interests at heart, and certainly doesn't have a lot of sympathy to spare for her. But instead of teaching her to be an assassin, he's training her to be a sort of urban courier in a dangerous, information-controlled environment. The first issue focuses more on action than details, but it still opens up a world that's interesting enough to draw even people with no particular interest in the game, which is about the best spin-off titles like this can expect to do… B

Okay, we're still getting caught up on the new Dark Tower: Long Road Home trade collection and the latest miniseries, Treachery; have pity, there are only so many reading hours in a week. But we did manage to snag the first two issues of The Stand: Captain Trips (Marvel), the first arc in the lushly visualized but still extremely bare-bones comics adaptation of Stephen King's best novel. (Feel free to commence arguing about that statement now.) Scripter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa sticks close by King's original dialogue and descriptions; most of his job seems to be figuring out exactly which 98 percent of the book to cut out, and which 2 percent to put on the page. The art isn't as rich or deep as it is in the Dark Tower books, but Mike Perkins and Laura Martin are trying to match that goal, and so far it's a damn pretty series, though the main characters look surprisingly generic. (At least Frannie doesn't resemble Molly Ringwald this time out.) Still, even slow readers could get through King's massive novel long before the last issue of this series can hit stands, and the book is so much richer than this faint adaptation. This series reads just like the Classics Illustrated comics of yore: The plot points are there, but the flavor is gone… B-


For people who haven't been following along with the Dungeon series, a French import from busy-bee Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, the latest installment, Dungeon Monstres Vol. 2: The Dark Lord (NBM) is just going to be more of the same—and a particularly impenetrable installment at that, since it takes up the tale in the midst of huge, cataclysmic events. But for ongoing fans, this is a particularly terrific volume that finally bridges the gaps in the history of Herbert, the hapless duck warrior introduced in Dungeon Vol. 1: Duck Heart. By the time of the "Dungeon Twilight" series, Herbert has inexplicably become a shadowed, infinitely powerful lord of evil, and this book finally moves toward explaining how. It also unites protagonists from throughout the series' sprawling timeline, and pits them against each other without picking sides, or really caring about the outcome of their contest; what matters is making each new plot development go somewhere unexpected. New guest artists step in on this volume, possibly to help keep the books coming at their frenetic rate, which is matched only by the frenetic rate of the crazed fantasy stories that make up the Dungeon world as a whole… A-

Yeah, it took us a little while to catch up on the big issue #75 of Fables, which wraps up the war, the Emperor, the Adversary, and to some degree the entire series to date in one swell foop. Uh, did that feel rushed and unsatisfying to anyone else? And are we wrong in feeling that the series lost its way when it started concentrating more on the big picture of the war than on the individual characters that made the series so fascinating when it first launched? And are we wrong in hoping that this is the turning point where the series gets back to its roots? C+