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Monday, January 26, 2004

 

Short, Sharp Shocks -- Beginning today, my hope is to bring you reviews of noteworthy comics and graphic novels every Monday. This is the first of a pair of new features to debut this week at the ADD Blog.

Mother, Come Home -- Thomas Tennant is the young boy at the heart of this story, and its greatest triumph is the way cartoonist Paul Hornschemeier uses the smallest of things -- such as a cast-off, half-finished peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- to immerse the reader fully in the world-filling pain of a seven-year-old boy whose family is disintegrating around him despite his mightiest efforts. Hornschemeier delights by comparing and contrasting visually and thematically; he has a natural gift for storytelling that justifies not only the by now worn-out Chris Ware comparisons, but seen longform here like this suggests a mind that traverses ideaspace with the same sort of curiousity and passion for expressing his personal truth through creative exploration as the master, Alan Moore. Mother, Come Home is the first essential graphic novel of the year, and an essential addition to the canon of great comics works. That it's by a cartoonist really just getting started and with enormous potential for growth makes it all the more impressive and worthy of your attention. Grade: 5/5

The Unfunnies #1 -- Artist Anthony Williams is note-perfect as he evokes the Hanna Barbara animation style to tell what writer Mark Millar says is a gothic horror story. Horrible, perverse things happen here -- don't leave this anywhere a child might find it -- but there's a solid sense (largely from the disturbing final moment) that there's a point to this that isn't apparent yet. Astonishingly perverse, astonishingly well-realized -- Millar will be crucified if there isn't an artistically valid payoff at the end of this mini-series (and maybe even if there is). I'm reserving final judgment on the series until I've read it all, because there's just not enough here to know if the story will justify itself. But The Unfunnies gets points from me for making sure the Keith Giffen cover (there's an "Offensive" variant to watch out for -- take that in whatever sense you like) isn't visually appealing to children (as the insides most certainly would be), and for advertising the fact that it isn't supposed to be funny right in the title. Grade: 4/5

My Flesh is Cool #1 -- Steven Grant's long-awaited mini-series about an assassin who can get to any target because he can place his consciousness into anyone's mind. Artist Sebastian Fiumara is new to me, but he gives as good he gets from Grant, delivering tense and dramatic images that are an improvement over the art on Grant's previous Avatar effort Mortal Souls. Fiumara's style reminded me most of Tom Raney, with maybe a little Bernie Wrightson thrown into the mix -- a good combination for a crime drama with overtones of suspense and paranoia. Grant's story is compelling and unusual, and his assassin hero gains sympathy by being surrounded by bigger scumbags then himself (readers of Sleeper will especially find the series enjoyable, although they work in different ways). Grant specializes in quality action/crime stories (as you know if you read the recent Damned trade paperback), and this looks to be another success for one of my favourite writers. You can preview the series here. Grade: 4/5

New Frontier #1 -- Let's get one thing straight -- $6.95 (USD) for each issue of this sprawling saga of the DC Universe as it never was is a bargain. This first issue blazes along with a mature, dynamic tale that takes at least a half-hour to read because it's so full of story. In 64 ad-free pages, writer/artist Darwyn Cooke proves to be a creative double-threat in the spirit of 1980s Frank Miller, John Byrne or Walt Simonson -- both writing and drawing a story so good that the wait between issues is going to be exquisitely painful. Cooke's sublimely beautiful cartooning perfectly evokes "the lost innocence of the Silver Age," (to coin a phrase), here featuring loving and respectful (but never boring) tributes to Harvey Kurtzman, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby and other true gods of comics art. When I finished this first issue, I felt as if I had just experienced a full-length graphic novel, and as another comics blogger has noted, I wouldn't blink if the pricetag on this series were ten bucks an issue. New Frontier looks to be the best superhero series of 2004, and is guaranteed to provide thrills and drama whether you care for the genre or not. Grade: 5/5

Sleeper #12 -- The "first season" of my favourite monthly series draws to a close with exactly the scene I've been waiting for since the first issue. The brilliant and scheming Tao -- virtually an alien consciousness grown in a vat here on Earth -- confronts Holden Carver with everything he knows and twists the dial way past 10 as the stakes get more desperate and the outlook ever more bleak. My only concern on this title has been whether Ed Brubaker would be able to handle the intelligence of Tao as well as the character's original creator, Alan Moore. Thankfully, this issue we see that Brubaker has fully thought out his take on Tao, giving him added motivations and layers of complexity that seem natural in retrospect. Every issue of this series has seen Holden digging himself a little deeper into the hole he fell in to, and by the time we get to the end, the entire status quo of the series has changed. Season Two can't start soon enough as far as I am concerned. (You can read Big Sunny D's take on the first trade paperback collection here). Grade: 5/5

Human Target #6 -- Peter Milligan and new artist Cliff Chiang deliver a nuanced, standalone story involving Christopher Chance protecting a beloved priest whose life is endangered. Milligan's story is sharp and focused, with more than one point to make about some important contemporary political and social questions. To say more would be to spoil what was one of the best comics of the week -- but whether you're a regular reader of Human Target or just want to sample one of the better Vertigo titles, this issue stands out as a great example of why this series works so well. Former artist Javier Pulido will be missed mightily, but Chiang maintains the deceptively simple style that suits this book so well. Grade: 4.5/5

The Rise of the Graphic Novel -- This compact, visually attractive hardcover aims to inform someone -- librarians? -- about the phenomenon of the graphic novel. Writer Stephen Weiner's text is superficial and occasionally factually dubious, and of little use to anyone interested in a comprehensive understanding of the graphic novel and its place in 21st century culture. That manga, the fastest-growing area of the industry for the past few years now, is dismissed with an empty, uninformed acknowledgement in literally the book's last couple of pages is all anyone with an understanding of industry trends really needs to know. Useless. Grade: 1/5

Fray TPB -- Joss Whedon Fray was the first noteworthy comics work by the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Whedon and artists Karl Moline and Andy Owens working together to create a compelling character and a believable milieu for her to live in. Melaka Fray is no angel, but she's good Slayer material, and sufficiently different in character from Buffy as to not seem like a bland rehash. From the dramatic introduction to Melaka as she is tossed out of a flying car, to the tragic revelation of the true nature of her opponent, to the organic way Whedon connects Fray to Buffy, everything works here. Whedon told this story with as much style, drama and action as he put into the best of his TV scripts, and the art keeps pace. Welcome supplementary material fills out the back pages of the collection nicely. More Fray by this team would be most welcome, and a wise use of Whedon's comics-creating skills. Grade: 4.5/5

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