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Monday, February 02, 2004

Short, Sharp Shocks -- Concise critiques of recent comics and graphic novels.

The Cute Manifesto -- The element of capital-c Cute in James Kochalka's work can't be denied, and in this new mini-comic the cartoonist celebrates and explores his own fascination with it. Presumably Kochalka, who recently became a father, was inspired in part by his son Eli to investigate his own vulnerability to, and utilization of, cuteness. The mini-comic itself is, as you'd imagine, quite cute, and infuriatingly difficult to write about without using a word that I am somewhat uncomfortable with, "cute." That said, The Cute Manifesto falls into the same delightful semi-didactic mode as Kochalka's The Horrible Truth About Comics, Sunburn, and Reinventing Everything. I say "semi-didactic" because Kochalka is teaching himself as much as he is his readers, and it's fascinating to me to watch him explore his own ideas and see what he comes up with. The Cute Manifesto is unlikely to convert new readers to the joys of Kochalka's work, but the already-converted and the open-minded newcomer may find a measure of delight here as James looks at the inherent cuteness in babies and kittens and tries to find where that cuteness goes when adulthood and its accompanying lack of overt cuteness sets in. The Cute Manifesto can be purchased for $3.00 from James Kochalka, PO Box 8321, Burlington, Vermont, 05402. James, you really ought to use Paypal. It's convenient, and even sort of cute. Grade: 4.5/5

Walking Dead #4 -- While this is clearly a character-driven title, Tony Moore's artwork struck me this issue as reason enough to be reading The Walking Dead. In this issue, we find two characters getting clever and figuring out a way to walk among the zombies that have taken over the city. They go on a search for firepower, and the journey among the decaying city and its residents gives Moore a chance to really show what he can do. The level of detail on the buildings and the zombies themselves is enormously impressive, and the graytone work that Moore delivers actually enhances the book -- at this point I'm convinced colour would diminish the impact of the images. Robert Kirkman's script is completely engrossing, filled with drama and tension that arises not only from the circumstances the characters find themselves in, but from the characters themselves. The Walking Dead is among the best monthly series being published today, and is highly recommended. Grade: 4.5/5

Wanted #2 -- Amid all the controversy over whether Mark Millar actually ever uttered the words "Watchmen for supervillains" in regard to this title, the question of how supervillains might have gotten so much control over the world of Wanted has never been asked. Defying the apparent expectations of many, Millar remembers to put a story into Wanted, and in this issue we see how and why the bad guys have the power and freedom they do. The feel of an extended "What if" settles in, especially in the evocative final images of the last known superheroic artifact, which will be familiar to longtime comics readers and not surprising at all to those who known where Millar's true interest lies when it comes to superhero comics. It's enough to give me hope that there's more than shock and nihilism going on here, and JG Jones absolutely justifies my belief that he's on the top shelf of action artists working today. As I've said before, this is a logical and welcome extension to Millar's work on The Ultimates and The Authority, without risk of corporate editorial capriciousness but not without intelligence, focus, and more excitement than you'll see in 90 percent of Marvel and DC's torpid superhero offerings these days. Grade: 4.5/5

The Norm Magazine #2 -- More early Norm, collecting the witty and observant comics strip by Michael Jantze. Work, dating, holidays and friendship all are examined, with virtually every strip bringing a laugh and a nod of recognition. Jantze's The Norm is one of the few comic strips I truly enjoy reading, and the latest issue of The Norm Magazine is worth your attention if you're looking to be entertained while watching many of the sophistries of modern living get skewered. Tons of features and strips can be viewed at The Norm website. Grade: 4/5

Touch of Death #0-3 -- The most noteworthy thing about this ambitious mini-series is the unusual, eye-catching covers by Andrew Robinson that graced issues #1-3. Their elegant, spare design promises much more than the series ultimately is capable of delivering. The story is about a young woman named Keli who has the power to kill with her touch, and the rescue mission her husband falls into when she is kidnapped by an agency that knows the secret of her abilities. The basic structure of the plot is fine, but the frequently awkward artwork (which gets progressively worse after a fairly solid opening chapter in #0) and many, many typos serve to undermine the reader's ability to stay engaged in the story. Additionally, the story's middle section is crippled by seemingly endless, overly wordy exposition about the history of Keli's people and her abilities, and a reprint of the story from #0 is shoehorned into the back of #1 and 2 in a way that further serves to disrupt the narrative flow. Writer Brian Kirsten has some potential, but he needs a good editor and a better choice of artists than the ones here (from "Golden Goat" studios). Previews and purchasing information are available at the Touch of Death website. Grade: 2/5

Demo #3 -- Probably the best issue yet, and with the added storytelling challenge that most of the issue is a conversation between two people sitting in a car. Samantha Hurley is a young woman who hasn't seen her father or half-brother in years, and the story begins at the father's funeral, as she reflects on her family's disastrous history. Writer Brian Wood surprises with the concept at the core of this issue, and startles with the way he lets us in on it. Artist Becky Cloonan delivers artwork that, like The Walking Dead actually benefits from being in black and white. The sense of place and mood she brings, especially to some key moments, is impressive when you realize she's doing it all with a few splashes of india ink -- and a boatload of growing talent. So far every issue of Demo has left me wanting to learn more about the characters and their futures -- and looking forward to the next issue. Grade: 4/5

Steel Kitty #1 -- An awkwardly drawn and poorly written mini-comic from "Psi-Comix." The story involves a criminal clown whose evil activities force a female Wolverine-type character (except she has -- wait for it -- four claws on each hand!) into action. Bonus features include scribbled backgrounds, "cars" drawn in a vertigo-inducing perspective, and portable toilets that appear to be able to move by themselves. Generally I am inclined not to review books this bad, but I mean it in the kindest way possible when I encourage the creators of Steel Kitty to continue to explore other employment opportunities. This issue shows no potential whatsoever. For an alternate opinion you can read the Silver Bullet review. Grade: 0/5

Wildcats 3.0 #18 -- Dustin Nguyen's absence is felt this issue, as fill-in artist Francisco Velasco delivers what amounts to a subpar imitation that is extremely awkward in some spots and suggests an unwelcome Humberto Ramos feel in others. Unfortunate that the artistic change takes place at a key moment, as the federal government is noticing Jack Marlowe's world-changing activities and Marlowe delivers a chilling reminder of his message to the President. The Chief Executive looks nothing like George W. Bush, yet clearly is meant to be him, reminding the reader how stupid DC's editorial policies are, and how often they disrupt what is otherwise above-average storytelling. I'm still interested in Wildcats, but it's sad to note that the excellence that has marked this run is definitely lacking this time out. Grade: 3.5/5

Catwoman #27 -- This Ed Brubaker-written titled used to be really well drawn by accomplished cartoonists like Darwyn Cooke, Javier Pulido and Cameron Stewart. Three issues in to Paul Gulacy's tenure as penciller, I am, to the degree that it affects my life, a bit distraught at how, visually, the book has fallen. Gulacy delivers a hilarious boob sock on page 1, panel 3 and renders vital supporting character Holly (arguably the star of the book during the pre-Gulacy artistic Golden Age) utterly unrecognizable. Only so much of Brubaker's former energy and inventiveness shine through, which could be attributed to either his depression over the current state of artistic affairs, or more likely mine. Either way, what would have been a key and exciting moment -- say, Selina and Batman having a rooftop conversation -- is instead seen through a boob sock, darkly. Grade: 3.5/5

Caper #1-4 -- Judd Winick mostly leaves me cold as a writer, and I have given his work multiple choices to impress me. Based on the recommendation of someone I trust (Jim Crocker of Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts), though, and also because of the strengths of artist Farel Dalrymple, I decided to give Caper a look. I'm glad I did, and even more glad that I picked up #1-4 all together, as they comprise the first story-arc of this 12-issue limited series. Winick's story concerns two brothers who end up working for a Jewish mobster in San Francisco in the early 1900s. The surprisingly affecting script involves love, jealousy and betrayal, enveloped in an extraordinarily convincing sense of place and circumstance. Dalrymple -- who you may know from Pop Gun War as a gifted and unique artist -- is well-chosen to depict the clothing, architecture and character of the era. These four issues contain a tight and involving story that moves quickly with no false notes or missed beats. Future issues will move forward in time to reveal the consequences and legacies of the characters in the first four chapters, and I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the saga of Caper. Grade: 4/5

Hulk: Gray #5 (of 6) -- Thankfully Iron Man doesn't appear in this issue -- if there's a character Tim Sale's art is more unsuited to depicting (as he did in the previous issue), I'd be hard pressed to think of it. So here's an issue-length conversation between an injured Betty Ross and the gray monster who injured her. "Hulk help Betty." "Eek! Monster! Hey, don't I know you?" That sort of thing. The story plays to Sale's strengths, lots of close ups, and a particularly impressive shot of an old-fashioned gas station. I'd mention Jeph Loeb's strengths if I knew quite for certain what they are -- they were best on display in Superman: Man for All Seasons (also with Sale), but appear to be absent in Hulk: Gray, which uses a six-issue conversation between Bruce Banner and his psychiatrist as perhaps the most aggravating and unnecessary framing device since Loeb mis-used an important historical speech for his christawful JLA: Our Worlds at War abortion with artist Ron Garney. The Banner/Samson chit-chat is filled with angst, ennui and portent, and yet five issues in we've learned nothing new about these characters or even had much fun tap-dancing all over decades-old tropes as familiar as the fart you just rattled out. Why did I buy this? Well, I liked a lot of Spider-Man: Blue, frankly. Grade: 3.5/5


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