Saturday, June 09, 2007

Saratoga Springs Comicon -- I figure I'll check out the Saratoga Springs, NY Comicon mentioned this week by Roger Green. Which leads me to wonder, any other comics readers/bloggers/creators/etc. from the Upstate New York region planning to attend? Drop me a line if you're going, or thinking about it...


Black Summer #0 -- One weekend sometime about a decade ago, I stopped in to a couple of Albany-area comic book stores and found then-complete runs of the first seven or eight issues of two titles I had been hearing some good buzz about, The Authority and Planetary. Both were written by Warren Ellis, a writer I hadn't encountered before, and both exceeded my expectations in being exciting and entertaining adventure comics.

The Authority, especially, found the writer blending a surprising mix of violence and politics. Surprising not because they worked so well together (which they did), but because the book was published by one of the two biggest corporate comics publishers in North America. If Wildstorm parent company DC eventually stepped in and destroyed the quality of the title (which they did), it was thankfully long after Ellis and artists Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Laury Martin created an enduring set of 12 issues that are pretty much the best superhero comics to be published in the last ten years.

Ellis is mixing the kicking and 'sploding with the political again in Black Summer #0, a brief, bloody and blunt introduction to a series that is far more violent and far more political than not only The Authority, but any other title Ellis has written. Seven more issues are to follow beginning later this summer, and thankfully we can be certain neither the violence nor the politics will be moderated by anyone other than the creators involved (primarily Ellis and artist Juan Jose Ryp), because the title is published not by one of the corporate publishers, but by Avatar Press. Avatar has been criticized for reasons ranging from scheduling delays to the content of their titles, their variant cover policies and other issues, and I'll acknowledge all of that (full disclosure: I have in the past sold work to Avatar myself), but I'm relieved Black Summer is at Avatar because 1. I liked this debut issue very much and more importantly 2. Ellis and Ryp will get to tell this story their way.

I want to suggest why I liked the issue without going too much into detail. You may already have heard what the plot involves, but you won't hear it from me and if you haven't learned about what kicks things into action, I'd advise avoiding any spoilers until you can read it and judge it for yourself.

As with Fell, the extra material in the back is both entertaining and informative, and in this case probably a necessary element for Ellis to outline the origins of his story and the reasons it came to be. I'll try to moderate my own ongoing outrage and disgust at the realities that fuel Ellis's creativity, and say that after all these years, it's nice to see someone in comics (or anywhere) making the points that Ellis makes through Black Summer's protagonist, John Horus.

If Horus goes too far for some readers, they would do well to remember that it is the place of political fiction to fuel debate and motivate the reader to think and judge and act for themselves. Political debate and conscientious action are things that have been missing from the United States for years, and in my opinion there's only one truly fictional moment in this entire issue. John Horus's actions may be fantasy, but his reasons, and his specific complaints, all look like a concise, truthful summary of the 21st century to date, as I have experienced it, and obviously as Ellis has observed it.

Things have gone beyond the disgrace of pre-9/11 U.S. politics and well into a surreal era of obscene violence and greed that can all be squarely and fairly blamed on an entire nation that did nothing as its ideals and laws were plucked away like the bottom-most pieces in a game of Jenga. Anyone who has opposed the events of the post-Clinton era has been marginalized or worse, and if it's energizing to watch Keith Olbermann in real life or Alan Shore in fake life (on Boston Legal) remind us what America should be about, well, any change is coming too slow to stop the ongoing death toll nearing three-quarters of a million human lives that have been lost because of the U.S.-created nightmare that is current-day Iraq.

To say nothing of the contempt the U.S.'s own people have increasingly enjoyed from those who have seized power.

Hmm, I said I wasn't going to go into too much detail, and here I am invoking Keith Olbermann and James Spader. Well, all politics is local, and their spirit of outrage and justice is present in Black Summer #0. John Horus's actions are horrific, but they are to the point, and they both beg debate and suggest a powerful piece of political adventure fiction lies before us. Ellis has told enough good stories in this vein in the past that I trust his instincts and creative gifts, and I find myself really, really looking forward to watching this series progress. Ryp's artwork is tighter and in more full focus than I have ever seen him work. And it's more than just the colouring that makes the storytelling so clear -- perhaps the artists feels as passionately about the subject as the writer.

And I'll paraphrase Roger Ebert in pointing out that what matters is not what Black Summer is about, but how it is about it. Ellis and Ryp are making big statements about important things here, things that really matter. I'm open to it as a violent, well-told superhero story, but I'm far further gratified that it's also saying true things about the disastrous state of the world as it exists right at this moment.

Visit the Black Summer website.


Friday, June 08, 2007

The Day in Comics -- My son had a field trip to the Bronx Zoo today that my wife accompanied him on, and faced with the choice of working while my daughter went to school, or both of us taking the day off and chasing comics around the northeastern United States, well, what do you think we did?

We left around dawn, and after a gigantic breakfast at Cracker Barrel (the one chain I don't try to avoid like the plague, although I am sure my doctor would be happier if I did), we jumped on the New York State Thruway and headed east to Massachusetts.

It's been a couple of years or more since I'd been to Modern Myths in Northampton, and believe me, it's been calling to me in my dreams. Probably the best-stocked store within three hours' drive of my home, and also one of the best-run and most attractive comic shops I've ever had the pleasure to be in. Luck was with me as manager Jim Crocker was on duty. Meeting and getting to know Jim and his store has been one of the biggest pleasures of my time writing about comics, and he not only welcomed my daughter and I to hang out for a few hours, but even treated us to lunch at an excellent Mexican restaurant right up the street. (There is an uncanny number of high-quality restaurants near Modern Myths, most of them really reasonably priced, too).

We had a good long chat about comics and the state of the industry, and Jim really went above and beyond by introducing my daughter to a manga and anime shop not far from his store. This is the first time ever, I think, that a comics-buying excursion ended with one of my kids getting as much or more than I did, but there were a lot of manga in Northampton that she was interested in, titles and genres you don't see much even in the Albany area. Nuff said.

Among my scores today were the new Ivan Brunetti collection Misery Loves Comedy (I was fence-sitting until Chris Allen convinced me it was worth picking up despite my having all the individual Schizo issues), the new Kev collection, and House by Josh Simmons, which I've heard many good things about.

Maybe the most interesting moment in Northampton was when Jim and I were talking politics and my daughter, nearly 14 now and becoming more and more aware of the world, asked what a liberal was. That led to a great discussion (over even greater ice cream -- ever had burnt sugar and butter flavour ice cream? Jim did not steer me wrong once during this entire trip!) about liberal vs. conservative and other subjects. Being in Northampton always feels like coming home to me, because of its culture, energy and the general character of the town. I'd long thought my daughter would really fit in well in a town like this, and by the time we were done with our trip today, she not only understood but agreed.

All in all it was a great day, one of those once-every-few-years kind of days where everything comes together just right. It won't be years before we return to Northampton again -- it's a great town with a truly first-class comic shop, and at the end of the day, that's all I really ask for.

Thanks to Jim and the gang at Modern Myths for being great hosts, and running one of my all-time favourite places to shop.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Subscribing to The ADD Blog -- If you'd like to receive an e-mail notice whenever I update this blog, please join the ADD Blog Updates group at Google. Thanks!


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Three Paradoxes -- There are comics about what it feels like to be alive, and there are comics about comics. The paradox I found in Paul Hornschemeier's new graphic novel is that it is both of these at once.

The Three Paradoxes is published by Fantagraphics Books, and you can see the cartoonist's fascination with process right on the wraparound cover, seven distinct panels playing with time, mood, and perception. Further investigation of the dustcover -- that is to say, taking it off -- further uncovers Hornschemeier's techniques, as the hardcover beneath the dustcover rolls back time to an earlier, unfinished, blue-pencil and ink version of the cover. It could just be a talented book designer having fun with his newest project, or it could be a statement about his intentions for the work and its effect on the reader. Or, it could be both, and probably is.

Throughout his cartooning carrer, Hornschemeier has played with form and content far more deeply than most of his peers. Only Seth and Chris Ware come to mind as fellow travellers of Hornschemeier's, always conscious not only of the impact of plot, dialogue, art and design, but further journeying into the unknown country that is the tactile, almost quantum effect on the reader by manipulating such seemingly invisible elements as paper stock and binding. Hornschemeier seems to invest his efforts into an almost obsessive control over the finished product's look and feel, which is why later issues of Sequential and all of Forlorn Funnies (his two forays into periodical publishing) feel as much art objects as they do funnybooks.

When I interviewed Hornschemeier a few years ago, he expressed some dissatisfaction about his graphic novel Mother, Come Home, and I'd have to guess that he feels The Three Paradoxes addresses some of his concerns. A single story broken down into separate sections and techniques, it still feels more natural and graceful than Mother, Come Home. And while Mother, Come Home impressed me as an ambitious and well-done book, I have to admit the richness and variety in The Three Paradoxes suggests a work I will be pulling off the shelf more often, to revisit its subtle mysteries and marvel at its artwork.

If you've read Hornschemeier's work before, you may be familiar with his blue-line pencil work or his fascination with making some of his images look old, discarded. All of that and much more is on display in The Three Paradoxes, the actual story of which is quite simple: A young artist named Paul visits his parents while he works on some comics and prepares for a first meeting with a woman he met online. It sounds much simpler than it is, though, as Hornschemeier weaves all his above-mentioned obsessions -- time, mood, perception, comics -- into a rich, rewarding tapestry that makes The Three Paradoxes his finest, most complete and forward-looking work yet.

Flashbacks and flights of fancy are demarcated by a number of artistic styles that echo various periods and artists throughout comics history, suggesting influences as diverse as Charles Burns and Hank Ketcham. Where another artist -- or even this one, earlier in his career -- might have presented such work as well-intentioned but scattered, Hornschemeier is in full control of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. This allows the reader to fully immerse in the cartoonist's technique without ever losing sight of the main point of this or any other story -- the theme. In The Three Paradoxes Hornschemeier unpacks his growing and impressive toolbox to reflect on his life, what he has learned, and where he is going.

The reader is not bashed over the head with obvious roadsigns, and neither are they forced to guess at Hornschemeier's intentions. Rather, the graphic novel unfolds its ultimate goal one panel at a time, one page at a time, the cartoonist in perfect tune with his art, saying what he wants to say, how he wants to say it, and in a way that is both a delight and a wonder to experience. The final panel suggests much about what is to come for Paul as a character and as a comics creator, and it says even more about the journey he has just allowed us to take with him.

The very best comics creators put their lives and minds right there on the page and invite the reader to observe, analyze, even judge. The Three Paradoxes is, as I said at the start, both about what it feels like to be alive, and about the process and wonder of creating comics. It's visually arresting, emotionally resonant work. On every page of The Three Paradoxes, Hornschemeier is telling you about his history, his fascinations and his future. This is a book by a cartoonist getting better all the time, and the best example yet of why Paul Hornschemeier is among the most vital and promising creators working today.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Tuesday That Was -- Worked most of the day, left a few minutes early because I just did not feel well. I hope I'm not coming down with anything, as I am hoping to make a minor roadtrip over to Massachusetts on Friday, and being sick would kill that, because I am driving...

Heard from my comic shop that some of the titles I special ordered are on their way, so that's good news. It's amazing the stuff that I find out about after it's already been solicited, which is why I reluctantly jumped back on the Previews bandwagon. But keeping up is important, because the past few years have produced more great comics than any other decade I can remember, ever. My two large and one small bookcases are all bursting at the seams, there's a large pile over in the other corner waiting for a new bookcase (hey, Father's Day is this month!), and more good stuff comes out every week. It's uncanny. And that's just book-books, graphic novels -- don't even get me started about floppies. No matter how I trim the herd, there still seems to be three or four dozen floppies waiting to be put away as they pile up every few weeks. And I only keep the good ones!. Like I said, uncanny.

Tonight should be quiet -- I want to catch up on some TV watching, with episodes of Planet Earth and Boston Legal and Lost waiting for me. I ordered pizza because I didn't feel like cooking and no doubt the kids will soon be clamoring for food. At the moment they're playing or doing homework or whatever it is kids do at ten after five on a Tuesday. I have a feeling bedtime will come early tonight, at least for me. I'd like to grab some extra Zs and hopefully be recovered by morning from whatever it is that's slowing me down today...


Monday, June 04, 2007

Johnny B on Sgt. Pepper -- One of my big disappointments this year at work was having a long weekend of Sgt. Pepper anniversary celebrations I proposed shot down as too complicated to make work on the radio.

So I was thrilled to see Johnny Bacardi's track-by-track analysis of the legendary LP. Go take a look, and then give a listen to what remain one of the most brilliant rock albums of all time.


Five by Five -- Here's some Top 5 lists of mine at the moment...feel free to meme it along if you're so inclined!

Five Fave TV Series
The Shield
The Sopranos
The Office

Five Fave Monthly Comics
Buffy Season 8
Punisher MAX
The Boys

Five Fave Graphic Novels
King Cat Classix by John Porcellino
Punisher: From First to Last by Garth Ennis and others
Criminal Vol. 1: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Conan Vol. 4: Hall of the Dead by Kurt Busiek, Cary Nord and others
American Elf Vol. 2 by James Kochalka

Five Fave Songs
Young Folks - Peter, Bjorn and John
New Sensation - INXS
One True Vine - Wilco
The Love Parade - The Dream Academy
Love Should - Moby

Five Fave Movies
Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles)
Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
Grindhouse (Rodriguez/Tarantino)
Harsh Times (David Ayer)

Labels: ,

The Problem with North American Superhero Comics -- Writing for The Comics Journal's weblog Journalista, Dirk Deppey pretty much explains why North American superhero comics suck so much (scroll down to the panel of Catwoman facing some swordsmen and read from there).

These days, my litmus test for whether anyone knows anything at all about the artform of comics is whether they use the word "comics" to mean comics, which includes everything from Naruto to Peanuts, from Abandon the Old in Tokyo to Tintin, and, yes, from Spider-Man to Kampung Boy. And lots more.

But I find myself tuning out completely when I hear or read someone say something to the effect of "Comics suck right now," and then go on to complain about Infinite Crisis or Civil War, betraying the fact that said commentator is dissatisfied (and rightly so) with North American superhero comics, specifically, as Dirk nails it, "New York corporate comics culture."

In the end, only one of two people can have ultimate authority over a story being created for the public: the creator or the publisher. If itís the creator, than the editorís job is to assist said creator in bringing the completed story to market to the best of his or her ability. If itís the publisher, however, than the editorís job is to serve as the publisherís hands in guiding a corporate property to market in the most saleable condition possible.
-- Dirk Deppey

Dirk's example, and it's a painful one for me, is DC's destruction of Ed Brubaker's Catwoman.

When Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke relaunched the title, it had been an amateurishly-drawn piece of garbage for years on end. With a single, visionary stroke, Brubaker and Cooke turned it into one of the best superhero comics published in the past 20 years.

But that "corporate comics culture" inserted itself: A succession of good artists, including Cameron Stewart and others, continued the pop noir feel Cooke had infused the title with, but DC didn't think it was selling well enough, and chose not to nurture a creatively exceptional title long enough for its potential audience to find it. Instead, as Dirk notes, DC assigned Paul Gulacy to illustrate Brubaker's scripts, and the series immediately degenerated into a parody of its previous excellence.

The lesson will go unheard at the highest levels of corporate comics, but Brubaker's Catwoman is a fine example of the damage that can be done by short-sighted fiddling with what is clearly visionary work. Every once in a while something beautiful comes out of Marvel or DC, whether it's the first 24 issues of Catwoman or Grant Morrison's New X-Men. But almost inevitably, someone higher up than the title's creators or editors takes notice, makes some "suggestions," and good work with great potential is squandered.

In the long term, speaking as someone who's 41 years old and has been reading comic books since I was 6 years old -- it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth, and generates enormous ill will and profound doubt about the corporate companies' ability to shepherd their characters, many of whom have a sentimental or even profound importance to the greater culture at large.

So this is why I am always leery when a creator I respect signs on to a new project at Marvel or DC. I am always hopeful, but there's always that fear that even if the work is good, there will be no real creative control by those best equipped to weild it: The creators.


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Changes -- I'm fiddling with the template today. I've moved the very long "Recommended" list to its own page, because it was adding unnecessary length to the sidebar. I also switched the archives from weekly to monthly, in the hopes of that taking up less sidebar real estate too. Blogger is ungodly slow today, so the changes may take a while to go into effect. Drop me an e-mail if you notice anything terribly wonky.


June Previews Pre-Ordering and My Monthly Pull List -- Well, since switching comic shops I've begun getting Diamond's Previews catalog again. Here's what I pre-ordered from the June catalog, presumably arriving in August...

* Pg. 293 Berlin #13 (Drawn and Quarterly) -- If I waited until this excellent series has enough issues in the can for a second collection, I might very well be dead.

* Pg. 298 Complete Peanuts 1965-1966 (Fantagraphics)-- One of the most gratifying reprint projects of all time, every volume is a delight to dive in to. And as an added bonus, this volume will include the strip that appeared the day I was born. Tell me you won't be jazzed to see the same when your time comes around!

* Pg. 330 Scott Pilgrim Vol. 4 (Oni Press) -- Probably the most exciting release in the catalog for me. Bryan Lee O'Malley's comics are energetic, witty and most of all they feel very much like what's happening in comics right this moment.

These are in addition to the monthly titles I have on my pull list...which looks something like this:


Titles marked with an asterisk (*) are for my kids, or in the case of Buffy, for one of my kids, and also one for me...

Labels: ,

This page is powered by ADD.