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New Year's Dane

A new year, and it couldnít come soon enough.

I could look on 2004 as a time of sadness, or a time of great challenges and marginal growth, but mainly, I donít want to look back on it at all. If Iíve learned one thing, itís that I worry too much about disappointing other people or what they think of me. The only real purpose in life is to be comfortable in oneís skin, and itís only then that you can be the kind of mate, friend, parent or artist you want to be. I think it helps to try to glean knowledge and insight anywhere you can find it. It could be something as unassuming as the latest issue of Comic Book Artist, which has an interview with The Imp creator Dan Raeburn, plugging his new monograph on Chris Ware.

Raeburn has some good advice for writers, particularly critics and essayists, which is to write about things you donít understand, the process of which will often force you to gain a greater knowledge and appreciation. He also applauds CBA editor Jon B. Cooke not on his magazineís subject matter, but his palpable enthusiasm. I donít care what anyone else writes about, but I did take this advice to heart and think this year it would be good to try this here as well. I donít mean that I will write nothing but positive reviews, but I can maybe lean a little more towards covering books I like, artists I like, etc. It doesnít have to be a fully formed masterpiece to be memorable or admirable or worthy of discussion.

For instance, when the collection comes out and I review the entirety of DEMO, I can tell you that the gist of the review will be that writer Brian Wood has made a significant step forward in his progress in that he now can write scenes of a weight and mood that remain with the reader. Thatís not to say these scenes add up to great stories, but I still enjoyed the book more than most series I read last year. Thatís not a backhanded compliment at all, just my opinion of his progress. Moving forward is the key here, not the distance moved.

And I donít mean it as a backhanded compliment to say that the Sonny Lieuw sketchbook section of the magazine was much better than his comics so far. It made me anxious to see what he takes on next, and I hope he is able to find a good story for his wonderful art.

I donít mean to jump around here, but the other day I was explaining to my son about how in my day, movies you bought didnít have any extra stuff to watch, just the movie itself. One byproduct of the "loaded" dvd age is that one is sometimes forced to reconsider failed films in light of the fascinating behind-the-scenes material or deleted or extended scenes. You know you would be curious about a two disc edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities. And sometimes, this approach does work.

Grant Morrisonís and Dave McKeanís Arkham Asylum is a good case in point. This is a book I bought as a teenager, read once, looked at a couple more times, and from then on it lined my shelf as an attractive decoration rather than a book. Now, to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, it has been released in a slightly more expensive edition, with the complete Morrison script, newly annotated. Itís the script that makes this book worthwhile. In fact, it would be better just to read that than the illustrated version. Dave McKean, for all his immense ability as an illustrator, cover artist and designer, does a rather poor and needlessly confusing job as a storyteller here. To be fair, the script is complex, challenging, and pretentious, but McKean takes what is meant to be a harrowing ordeal and makes it for the most part rather glum. His image of the Joker, repeated often or tweaked slightly, is truly terrifying, but he seems almost embarrassed to draw the rest of Batmanís Rogues Gallery, and especially Batman himself.

Itís not all McKeanís fault, though. As Morrison explains in his notes, his Batman here is a real tight-ass, totally repressed and uncomfortable with the mere thought of sexuality and intimacy. Itís an intriguing take that demands some humor to make the psychodrama and Gothic gloom go over, but McKean isnít the kind of artist to help sell jokes.

The script, while it doesnít make Arkham a better book, at least gives ample evidence of Morrisonís brilliance and education. The symbolism, recurring themes, and structure of the book are very intelligently conceived and as smart as just about anything Alan Moore has written. The problem is that for all this thought, the book is just not that entertaining, and Morrison has spent too much time casting the Rogues as Tarot signs rather than coming up with much for them to do. Most of them stand around and have a few lines when Joker allows it, and Batman takes care of a fearsome baddie like Doctor Destiny by the less-than-inspired drama of pushing his wheelchair down a flight of stairs.

Morrison seems to still be quite proud of the book ("Whoís laughing now, fuckers?"), and he should be proud of the work he put into it. The script is entertaining and witty and extremely ambitious. But it stands now as the work of a gifted young man who has since become much more adept at synthesizing his ideas and obsessions with stories of deeper humanity, humor, pain, love and pure entertainment value.

Mark Millar is such a different writer than Morrison that itís hard for me to see how they collaborated together for several years. Millarís The Ultimates doesnít have nearly the ideas or clever dialogue and twists of Morrison superhero work, and yet itís so far above most other superhero books that he should be very proud of it. He and Bryan Hitch quite simply are the most formidable superhero comics creative team of the past couple years, and the hardcover collection of these first thirteen issues is more fun, more exciting, and better-looking than most movies. With the possible exception of Thor being revamped as a kind of plain-spoken eco-warrior humanist god, none of the characterizations of classic Avengers are startling or brilliant or surprising -- theyíre just right on. Captain America is more of a bad-ass, but loses none of his heroic luster for it, and arguably, this '40s relic would be more this way than the characterization weíve known all these years. Marvel is in a weird place now, because the jobs done on this team and Spider-Man in the Ultimate Universe have been so good theyíve demanded similar, but at the same time redundant, versions of the characters in the regular Marvel Universe. No knock to Brubaker and Ellis, but when this Cap and Iron Man are so good, why not put them on characters not currently well-served? But thatís only a credit to what Millar and Hitch have done here with this larger-than-life, state-of-the-art exploration of post 9/11 heroism and world-saving in a cynical and often insane world.

Speaking of Ed Brubaker, he does the second-best job of the three What If one-shots I read, the other two written by Brian Michael Bendis. Brubakerís premise is a natural, What If Aunt May Had Died Instead of Uncle Ben?, and he sets it up in amusing fashion as the breathless verbal fan fiction of a comic book geek talking to the shop owner. With Uncle Ben taking the rap for Peter Parker causing Aunt Mayís killer to fall to his death, Peter is left a foster kid, bitter and rebellious, with no moral center. He still occasionally spins his webs, but makes a lot of mistakes. The story of the delinquent who eventually grows up and redeems himself is a favorite of Brubakerís, and he does a decent job here, though the pat ending and adequate Andrea DiVito art keep this from being essential. Honestly, I think it would be really hard to come up with a What If story that felt like it had to be told, because, like a team-up story, part of the enjoyment comes from the expectation of familiar elements showing up in slightly-altered ways, so something truly different would probably come off as a disappointment to many.

In that case, Iíll give Bendis credit for coming up with a story for What If Karen Page Had Lived? thatís actually a lot more depressing than the one in which she died. I guess the point is that Matt Murdock would suck as a happy character. The great Michael Lark joining Bendis for the first time is probably reason enough for many to pick this up, and while Larkís work here isnít as impressive as Gotham Central, itís very good, and for whatever reason weíre treated to yet another comics depiction of Bendis himself, this time as narrator. The main problem with the issue is just that a third of it is taken up with retelling how Karen died, so thereís not a lot of room for the actual What If part.

Bendis scores even better with What if Jessica Jones Joined the Avengers? Iíd initially resented the very premise, because as much as I like Jones, sheís just not an important enough character in the Marvel Universe to warrant her own issue.

But then I figured, "Well, who really cares?" Bendis is the most important Marvel writer, and so itís understandable that Marvel would let him use this one-shot as a chance to reunite with Michael Gaydos for an alternate happy ending for his beloved Jessica. And damn if it isnít a touching, gooey, lovey issue. Yes, Iíve been drinking, or I wouldnít have written "lovey," but if Iíd been drinking more, I might have written "gooey" twice, or with three eís. Anyway, Bendis does a good job scripting a happy life for Jones, as well as that old warhorse Captain America. As with many What Ifs, thereís not much of a story; itís mainly "this happens, then that happens," but itís enjoyable nonetheless.

-- Christopher Allen

Review copies may be sent to me at:

Christopher Allen
Comic Book Galaxy Reviews
3361 Calle Cancuna
Carlsbad, CA 92009



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