One of the best things about this summer’s big event comics from both DC and Marvel has been the gleeful enthusiasm with which scores of creators explore a slew of alternate universes. Unencumbered by some of the more stifling parts of canon, writers and artists alike are committing to a long list of interesting choices. Despite the knowledge that all these great elseworlds will be coming to an end in a few short months (if they haven’t already) it’s a lot of fun to enjoy them while they last.
Best known for her original webcomic-turned-graphic novel Nimona and her recently ended run as co-writer of Lumberjanes, writer Noelle Stevenson brings her sharp sense of humor and bouncy dialog to the big two in Runaways #2 (Marvel). This is, just to make things as clear as possible, a book inspired by the original Runaways series, published starting in 2003, written by Brian K. Vaughan with art by Adrian Alphona. But this time around, Runaways is all about alternate versions of familiar Marvel characters, including the X-Men, Avengers, and more. It’s a motley crew of characters with more than one smart-mouthed teenage girl; in other words, it’s right in Stevenson’s wheelhouse, and she delivers.
Clearly a fan of the original series and the characters themselves, Stevenson demonstrates a confidence that even far more seasoned big two writers don’t have with team books, which in many ways can be more difficult to balance than solo titles. Artist Sanford Greene is a vital part of this work, drawing each character not only with enough personality of their own to be compelling, but capturing facial expressions that do just as much to communicate mood and intention as the dialog itself, if not more. Greene’s delivered an array of excellent covers in the past, perhaps most notably to Captain America & The Mighty Avengers and Shaft, so it’s great to see his talent on full display in these pages.
Many of the characters in this book are familiar, though they are just different enough from their most common appearances to keep the reader’s interest piqued. Cloak and Dagger in particular look very different from previous iterations, and Bucky Barnes’ design alone makes the price of the book well worth it. His perpetually angry puppy expression certainly doesn’t hurt matters. What’s perhaps most remarkable about this book is that it doesn’t feel stale. Working with a script based on a previously published story, starring a grab bag of random characters, the team does an excellent job of retreading familiar ground without falling into tedious repetition that would bore hardcore fans and frustrate new readers with endless in-jokes. Colorist John Rauch has a subtle touch, shifting from washed out and gray palates to nearly neon when the team is thrown into a battle simulation. Letterer Clayton Cowles, who seems to be on every book these days, is similarly understated with a delicate halo on Cloak’s dialog that shows an excellent attention to tone and detail.
Runaways is, when boiled down to its essence, Hunger Games with a better sense of humor, The Cabin In The Woods starring far more likable characters, the Triwizard Tournament if everyone at Hogwarts had a juvenile record and Doom was using it to turn them into killing machines. In other words, it’s super fun and a great read, and it’ll be a shame to see it go when Secret Wars is over. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Throughout his new sketchbook/memoir/travelogue Poetry Is Useless (Drawn & Quarterly), Anders Nilsen insists that there is no greater meaning behind this work. The harder he pushes this idea, the more it feels like he’s trying to hide some huge philosophical secret, challenging the reader to dig deeper to find the meaning that the author claims isn’t there. It’s not hard to find it. Using seven years’ worth of sketches, philosophical musings, and personal anecdotes, Nilsen creates a piece of art that celebrates creative spontaneity and the small details that make life worth living, forcing his audience to look at the world a little differently after finishing the book.
As is the Drawn & Quarterly standard, Poetry Is Useless is an exquisitely designed package. The cover and spine art spotlights the bold abstraction of Nilsen’s work, and the photographic presentation of his sketchbook pages adds an extra dimension to the visuals by showing the physical notebooks rather than transferring their images to blank pages. Every part of a page’s composition plays a part in how the reader interprets its contents, and showing weathered binding and ink bleeding through the pages makes the material even more raw and impulsive. These ideas are going straight from Nilsen’s head to his notebook, and it’s fascinating to see where his thought process takes him.
Some pages feature intricately detailed drawings of locations and people while some show Nilsen experimenting with nonrepresentational graphic elements, highlighting the wide range of his talent as an artist. Crossed out and whited out words become an intriguing visual tool in Nilsen’s hands, introducing creative tension to the page by suggesting that the author has written something he doesn’t want the public to see. One page features an entire section of whited out words in the middle of two humped blocks of black on both sides, and the combination of the hidden text and the asymmetry of the black borders creates an atmosphere of unease that may be reflective of Nilsen’s mental state at that moment in time.
Much of Poetry Is Useless involves a very basic human silhouette that interacts directly with readers by asking questions that force them to consider different philosophical ideas, imagine theoretical experiences, and focus on the sensations they are feeling as they absorb Nilsen’s work. Reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and Nilsen uses sections of this book to direct his audience’s attention to the world outside these pages, a choice that plays into a major theme of his work that, despite all the negative things about living, the fact that life exists at all is a miracle that should be cherished. There may not be any intended meaning behind the collected content of Poetry Is Useless, but it’s a work of immense value for those interested in the creative process of a remarkably talented cartoonist, and the interactive aspect makes it an introspective meditation on life, death, and all the things that complicate the journey from one to the other. [Oliver Sava]
Deviant Virtues (Humanoids), a collection of three erotic tales by writer Rose Le Guirec and artist Regis Loisel, sits somewhere between comic book and picture book. Each story is self-contained and completely separates the text and the art into two distinct parts. This takes the form of poetical asides that run concurrently to the art, long selections of prose that set up a brief comic sequence, and prose and art that appear alternatively. There isn’t a stand-out story, and narratively all three are weak—severely hampered by their reliance on heavy blocks of texts instead of fully integrated text and art. But Loisel’s art carries each with brevity and aplomb.
The art feels like a combination of Vittorio Giardino and Vaughn Bodē. It comes just up to the demarcation point of illustrative art, but he accentuates extremities to a cartoonish degree. His lines are curvilinear and sweeping, and there’s a nice fluid softness to everything he draws. While the sensuality of his chosen subjects is subjective and debatable, the soft, tender beauty of his line is not. In stark contrast to something like Stjepan Šejić Sunstone, whose characters are poreless simulacra, Loisel’s art is more satisfyingly real. There’s a slightly rougher texture to skin and to hair; it actually feels drawn, as opposed to feeling machined out of opaque sections of multi-color plastic.
The unpasteurized, fairy tale aesthetic is underscored by Loisel’s colors. It’s difficult to tell exactly what he’s colored with, but it appears to be something like a pencil, which leaves a similarly fine, grainy texture. This heightens the immediacy and folksiness of the comic and it does significant work to blend the tactility of the stories’ form with their content.
Contrarily, while every page and every panel is quite pleasing to the eye, Loisel’s storytelling is uninteresting and static. His images don’t flow from one to other (on the rare occasion when they are even allowed to); they’re actually quite stiff and rigid. In a conventionally formatted comic, this would prove more of a problem. However, much of the storytelling here is on prose, so while it is demeritorious, it’s not totally to blame for the book’s quality.
Unfortunately, Le Guirec’s writing—the prose that does all of the heavy lifting—is stilted and inconsequential. There is little narrative to be found in any of the three stories, and what little there is feels cliché and abrupt. The sex, while plentiful, is neither inventive nor erotic, or even interestingly described. This could very well be a matter of poor translation; that’s the sort of thing that it’s difficult to pin blame on. But regardless, in English, at least in this edition, it feels like the kind of thing that anyone could have written. It’s never particularly offensive or egregiously bad, but at no point does it rise above so-so. That’s the real shame, because were Le Guirec’s writing ever to match the quality Loisel’s art, that would really be something to read. [Shea Hennum]
The hits keep on coming from Noah Van Sciver. With the publication of Saint Cole and Fante Bukowski from Fantasgraphics, as well as Blammo 8 ½, Van Sciver is already having the kind of year for which most cartoonists would kill. The publication of My Hot Date (Kilgore Books) does nothing to dispel that notion. The man is on a roll.
Van Sciver came of age in the 1990s, in Mesa, Arizona. Noah is only one of six kids being raised by a single mother after dad left for New Mexico, clad in hand-me-downs and left to fend for themselves while their mom works around the clock. There’s no money, and he’s wearing his sister’s old sneakers, but he manages to get by on a steady diet of MTV and AOL Instant Messenger. These were the days of dial-up modems, lest you forget. Van Sciver shared the family computer with six other people, which cut down significantly on his ability to surf the World Wide Web. But he still found time to connect with Abby—or “cutie876,” in internet parlance. Abby, as opposed to the Canadian girlfriends we all had back in sophomore year, actually exists. And she lives nearby.
To say more would spoil the punchline. It’s a familiar enough setup, but the reality is even more excruciating than you’re probably imagining. The strength of the story, however, lies not so much in the anecdote (although it is funny), but in the execution. He nails all the little details that paint a picture of Van Sciver’s life as teenage nothing growing up in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. It’s a funny book, which is impressive considering that many of the facts of the story are actually pretty bleak: six kids of various ages forced to sleep together in one room, Van Sciver himself sleeping on the top of a bunk bed held in place by a board that sometimes came loose and cracked his brother on the skull in the middle of the night. It’s the kind of rough chuckles that should be familiar to anyone who grew up with TV as a babysitter.
My Hot Date is an enormously appealing package, a heavy pamphlet colored with a mixture of watercolor and crayon. Van Sciver has a knack for caricature, and he spares no detail in terms of painting himself in the least-attractive light. He’s rail thin with a giant white-boy afro and enormous glasses—essentially the gawkiest, most awkward 14-year-old conceivable. It’s hard not to feel for the guy. It was 1998, and we all thought Korn was cool back then. It doesn’t make us bad people. (Okay, maybe a little bit.)
Van Sciver is one of the best cartoonists working today, and My Hot Date maintains his enviable hot streak. At this point you should be buying everything he does on sight. [Tim O’Neil]