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I'm not a fan of long goodbyes, or goodbyes in general, but I recognize their value. And yet, a lot of the people I'd like to say goodbye to just stay right where they are, not leaving. Nonetheless, this column isn't really a goodbye, but I should point out that with my comics writing taking up much of my time -- and with caysh on the ol' barrelhead at stake -- reviews and review columns from yours truly will be as sparse or sparser (?) than they've been the past few months. I've gotten behind, and wanted to fulfill some obligations, internal and external, and tell you about a raft of books I've read in the past couple months. So let's go.
Oh, but first -- wasn't ADD's tribute to 100 Things He Loves About Comics wonderful? Should be ample evidence that he's not elitist or anti-superhero (I mean, Ross freakin' Andru, people), but I guess when you throw an "Arctic shitknife" or two around, people can get the wrong idea. By the way, readers, can any of you count enough people throughout your life that didn't say Antarctica as "Antartica" that it would take more than one hand? I didn't think so. But who am I to talk -- check my lame "vim and vinegar" line -- so funny you'll crash your flivver, vo-dee-oh-do!
Vimanarama #1 by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond is yet another winner from them. Morrison has been on a real roll lately, with what I think is not only the best miniseries of 2004 and probably 2005, WE3, but one of the best comics stories ever. The "Vim" has a little less vinegar, to para-paraphrase, but is a humorous, intriguing beginning, full of the promise of magic, romance, and culture all mixed up in a spicy masala courtesy of Bond's sturdy but fluid linework. He draws people the way they really should look.
2000 AD #419-up have been the usual mix of Judge Dredd plus three other features of variant quality, but for the first time in a while, the backups are beating Dredd. Gordon Rennie's and Dom Reardon's "Caballistics, Inc." returns for another go-round of the Vertigoesque supernatural troubleshooters, this time with a rock band feeling the feedback of an ill-conceived black mass in the studio, and there's an evil succubus honey who's so bad, her word balloons are black. How much blacker can they be? Answer: None. None more black. Better than this, though, is "Kek-W" and Warren Pleece's saga of teen "slamboarders", a dystopian future like much of 2000 AD's stories, but a bit funkier and more human. Anyone who followed Pleece's work on Ed Brubaker's shortlived Deadenders knows Pleece has a gift for drawing youth in all their sallow, slouching glory, and he doesn't disappoint here. The Dredd story, though scripted by the reliable John Wagner, has some annoying CGI artwork, which also mars the S'laine stories, unless you really need to see fake tits that badly.
Okay, so it's kind of hot.
The Legend of Grimjack Volume One by John Ostrander and Tim Truman collects the first stories of Cynosure's best mercenary/private eye/freebooter John Gaunt, this time for IDW. The newly created framing sequence is ample evidence how good both Ostrander and Truman can be when they're not just paying the bills but having fun. The old, four-color back-up stories from Mike Grell's Starslayer are good fun, but pretty much a warm-up for more involved and involving work to come, I imagine. Ostrander has a good handle on Gaunt right away-he's kind of a bloodthirsty Rick from CASABLANCA -- but this is early Truman work that only hints at his later mastery.
A cheaper, and more captivating introduction to the character is IDW's brand-new miniseries, Grimjack: Killer Instinct #1, which spends much of its first issue with Gaunt's last assignment for CADRE before he was even introduced in Starslayer, a nice prequel story about a botched assassination. It's much stronger work from both creators, and one can see the Gil Kane influence very clearly in Truman's work. Also, Ostrander packs a lot in here -- many pages have eight or nine panels, and Truman doesn't cut any corners.
Despite the bitter taste of his blog, I do feel bad for Don Simpson. His Megaton Man has just had its first five issues collected by iBooks and such an occasion demanded better from iBooks. Apparently, while film was readily available, they clearly chose to just scan from actual comics, resulting in the muddy mess I received the other day. IBooks usually does a good job with their trades, but this one, aside from a newly-created intro by Al Franken that Simpson illustrates (Franken really throws some shots at Simpson, too), is nearly unreadable. I can't even review it, but I will say that while I'm not a big fan, Simpson really does a nice job drawing in the hyperbolic style of early-MAD era Wallace Wood, and not many can pull that off effectively.
Since I'm thinking of old EC Comics, I should mention that Dark Horse put out a fine volume of biography and comics called Al Williamson: Hidden Lands, written by Thomas Yeates, S.C. Ringgenberg and Mark Schultz. The early portions cover Williamson's life, influences, and his friendships and collaborations with other greats like Frazetta and Krenkel, and then the majority of the book is short story after short story from EC and Atlas (pre-Marvel), including many Westerns, some science fiction, and even a previously unpublished handful of jungle girl stories (the toothless-sounding Jann of the Jungle). Williamson is a class act, and while this isn't exactly a Best Of, the artwork is always strong in whatever genre, and most of the stories, while often familiar in plot, are quite diverting.
This isn't meant as any kind of slam on George Perez or Marv Wolfman, but I have to say, I enjoy the Teen Titans cartoon more than I ever did the comics. I was somewhat skeptical at first of this attempt to manga-ize the team, but the designs are very good, and the voice acting first rate. I can no longer buy Raven as anything other than the sardonic Christina Ricci-type portrayed in the 'toon, and Beast Boy is really appealing here as well, and I never liked him much in the comics. Slade is terrific and doesn't lose anything for being slightly softened for the show, and in fact, never seeing his face works better. Perez's design for Terra is still tops, though -- the mean little overbite.
Keeping with the '80s notstalgia theme for a moment, I finally read Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme from over 20 years ago, one of the first "maxi-series". A respected if not particularly popular editor and writer of the '80s, Gruenwald was given a lot of freedom here -- a full year to tell dark superhero story with little impact or interference from the Marvel Universe proper. On the other hand, he was saddled with ugly, uninspired artwork from Bob Hall, occasionally spelled by the more polished but dull Paul Ryan (John Buscema breaks down and Jackson Guice finishes one issue, subpar work from both that is still miles above Hall). Add to that that the Squadron -- originally just a paper-thin sendup of the Justice League pressed into service by the House of Ideas to try to wring some commercial return out of them -- are one of the weakest, ugliest-looking superteams Marvel has ever foisted on the public. The worst of '80s excess is here, from male perms to female flattops, moustaches to asymmetrical costume monstrosities that make a reader think this era's four-color process was entirely too liberating.
But what's the story, huh? Why has this thing held a place of esteem or affection in many readers' hearts? The premise is that, under the control of supervillain Overmind, the Squadron has rendered the planet almost unlivable. Hunger, crime, disease -- all worsened by the state of the world in the wake of the Squadron's subversion. But they did beat Overmind, and now they want to make amends. They want to eliminate all the world's ills, and who better to do it than these powerful idiots who screwed up the first time?
But there is a lone voice of dissent -- Kyle Richmond, this world's Nighthawk (the Batman ripoff) and former President. He's easy to spot because he's the only one with a costume that doesn't hurt to look at. Nighthawk thinks it's a bad idea because ultimate power shouldn't be in the hands of one body, no matter how good their intentions are. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and all that. Those who see parallels in this with later works like Watchmen, Kingdom Come and even Identity Crisis are correct, and Gruenwald should get credit for being the first to explore the theme at length.
If only he'd been able to explore it in depth. Despite the earnestness and dedication with which Gruenwald undertakes this project (his ashes were even posthumously mixed into the ink during the initial trade paperback printing), he just doesn't have the skill to pull it off. True, there was probably some quota to be met each issue for action, and Hall's incompetence meant all the fight scene pages are boring and easily skipped, but Gruenwald fails on the most basic levels to make the characters interesting. Many of the Squadron have families, but they are given no personality, nothing beyond bland support for their hero or heroine and a hope they'll be able to spend more time at home soon.
Never any discussion about how easy they have it as super-mates and super-kids while their friends and relatives eke out their existences in the rest of the turbulent world. Gruenwald spends much of his time with the large team: Hyperion, the asexual leader (Superman); Archer, the Australian version of Hawkeye or Green Arrow but missing their political conscience or determination; Dr. Spectrum (a horny Green Lantern with tons of fear); Nuke (Firestorm); Tom Thumb (Oberon/The Atom, in the tough role of science whiz and mascot); Lark (Black Canary, right down to the relationship with The Archer); Arcanna (Zatanna, but instead of talking backwards she really just wants to be a housewife and have babies, so maybe she's more like Scarlet Witch); Whizzer (Flash); Hawk (Hawkman, in a costume so close as to be actionable, meaning of course that it's one of the good costumes); Amphibian (Aquaman -- why do underwater guys have such full heads of hair, anyways?) and Power Princess (Wonder Woman, who married a Steve Trevor type who's now got one foot in the grave -- Hall likes to draw her big boobies, and even Buscema throws in a shot of PP's pooper). A pretty sad group, so much so one relishes the relative novelty of villains like "Master Menace," "Ape X" and "Shape."
What follows is issue upon issue of these unlikable characters making terrible mistakes, errors in judgment, and even crimes against humanity, but somehow we're supposed to root for them much of the time. It's hard to want Tom Thumb to cure his own cancer when he's created a device to alter and control the minds of all criminals. It's hard to root for any of the male characters when all but Hyperion and Whizzer are leering fratboys who call the women "babe" and "pretty lady" and talk more about drinking at bars than repairing society. Hyperion, again, is almost a robot, and Whizzer is a dull family man without the conviction to stand up to anything he sees as wrong. Gruenwald's raw material is fine -- the behavior modification idea was strong enough for use just this year in Identity Crisis, of course -- but the Squadron is so loathsome and dysfunctional it's impossible to believe they'll get anything accomplished or even that they can stand each other. Tom Thumb -- the only genius of the group, probably the only one with an IQ over 110, is so abused and disregarded because he's a dwarf that I'm sure most readers expect him to become the villain before it's over. The logical, more satirical choice after his death would not have been the traditional hero's funeral Gruenwald gives him -- the Squadron should have just tossed him in a dumpster, or Amphibian could have tossed him to sharks. Amphibian himself, like all water-based heroes, gets the shaft -- anywhere in America they could have built the new HQ, and they build it 200 miles from the ocean! And it's hard to get past such lunkheaded dialogue as this single panel from #1, where four starving citizens forced to steal food off a truck for survival notice the Squadron: "Oh, cripes -- it's the Squadron Supreme!" "They're the gover'ment's super military!" "I'm cuttin' outta here." "We're in big trouble now!" Page after page is full of this expository blather, when it isn't full of high-falutin' moral blather or just icky blather like when Archer is being tortured by some supervillains (Ape-X's Institute of Evil -- real scholars, these): "Good thing your costume's already yellow, Archer!" Haw haw, piss humor. As a concept, the series had promise, and if it lead the way for others to realize that promise elsewhere, then kudos to the late Gruenwald for showing the way. But the book is terrible, honestly one of the worst Marvel series I've ever read.
I'm a bit behind on Kurt Busiek's delightful Conan, but Jimmy Palmiotti and Mark Texeira filled the gap nicely with Conan and the Daughters of Midora, which fits right in with the Conan-verse but is, as far as I can tell, an original story. Conan lets himself get captured so that he can pick the dungeon's locks and try to steal a precious black pearl from the castle of King Midora, but Midora is ready for him. He can either die, be imprisoned forever, or be released to bring back Midora's kidnapped daughter, his chosen heir, in exchange for the pearl and eventual freedom. Conan must take a couple guards and Midora's other daughter, who for whatever reason is not nearly so favored. Lots of bloody action -- the boys like the head wounds, a bit of sex, and a strong, bittersweet ending. I don't know if Palmiotti will ever win awards for his writing, but rarely have I been disappointed by it. He's pretty underrated.
Whether you love James Kochalka or hate him, Jason Cooley's Sunturd is likely to appeal to you. Cooley, bandmate of Kochalka's and who is often depicted in Kochalka's daily strip as Jason X-12, a cute but misanthropic doggy, turns the tables on his friend, using the same artwork from Kochalka's small masterpiece Sunburn and rewriting the captions. In this version, Kochalka is a hateful megalomaniac impatient for the day everyone begs to kiss his feet and holds his beauty in higher regard than even flowers. Cooley works with the art at hand with great skill, making thoughtful moments into moments of rage or unbridled egotism. I laughed out loud on every single page. Thanks to ADD for sending this one -- I think you can get it at Kochalka's site as well, fully endorsed by the Superstar Himself.
Tokyo Tribes is Santa Inoue's urban gang epic, from Tokyopop. I've only read the first volume so far -- not sure if others are out or not. It has the classic setup of two childhood friends who take somewhat different paths, though in this case they're both criminals, so Inoue has more of a challenge to make Kai sympathetic and Mera clearly the "bad guy." To do this, well, he cheats -- it's unclear how the Saru gang makes their money; they just seem to hang out at the diner much of the time, like in Happy Days. The leader of the gang, Tera, is kind of an affectionate but distant older brother, and it's no surprise he's taken out of the action so early, to make room for Kai to lead. In fact, there's really no question Kai is going to lead, as the rest of the gang are mainly comic relief misfits. On the Wu-Ronz side, Mera is a chilling villain, wanting his old friend Kai dead because of a lie perpetrated by his very own Iago, Skunk. Despite the paucity of original ideas and twists, though, it's a compelling read, with a great eye for the hip-hop-influenced Tokyo youth culture of only a couple years ago or so. Inoue has great style and uses graytones and other effects well, beginning to make Tokyo a character in the drama. If this is another 30 volume story, I'm not sure I can make it, but it's off to a good start at least.
Small Gods by Jason Rand and Juan Ferreyra is the latest of Image's police procedurals-with-a-twist after Powers, Sam & Twitch and maybe a couple others. In this one, psychics and telepaths are apparently so common that the law now requires them to be registered or face prison terms. Only precognitive psychics are allowed on the police force, not telepaths who can actually affect another's thoughts, so that puts Owen Young in a quandary, wanting to serve as a detective but having to lie and put his coworkers in jeopardy by doing so. As a credit to his character, they still trust him and cover for him when they find out, but now the stakes are raised when a perp they arrest recognizes him as a fellow 'path. Rand's central story is a page-turner -- will Owen or his partner John have to murder this scumbag to silence him? If they don't, they could all go to jail. As for characterization, he's solid but less assured. A well-written exchange defines the differences in philosophy between Owen and John: Owen thinks cops are heroes, John sees them as soldiers in a dirty war. But fellow officer Jodi, though there are intriguing hints laid down, throws herself at Owen at an inopportune time that sacrifices much of her dignity for a bit of sex and plot complication, and Owen's girlfriend Dani's time of confusion when he levels with her is dull and rote -- probably why Rand gets through it as quickly as possible. Ferreyra's art is extremely precise and professional without being very exciting to look at, though it could be I just prefer my cop comics more expressionistic. All in all, though, a good series I'm happy to have finally discovered, and the $9.95 price for this first trade makes it an easy call.
On ADD's recommendation, I ordered COMIC ART #6 and #7 last week and received them this week, reading both very quickly. It's a wonderful magazine with excellent production, though I was surprised how quickly it read for $9. The $9.95 Comics Journal lasts for hours and hours, though there's not as many glossy color pages, admittedly. The pieces in #7 on Harvey Kurtzman were touching but sad, the latter partly because of Kurtzman's terrible mistake in leaving MAD Magazine just as it was becoming a huge sensation to start the slick but quickly cancelled TRUMP with Hefner's dough, and partly because the lavishly reproduced sketches for Kurtzman's proposed humor piece on Freudian automobile designs aren't funny. Not sure we needed three or four versions of the "Hately-Vicious" warrior car. What makes the issue invaluable, though, is the thorough analysis of Daniel Clowes' David Boring, uncovering the various alpha-and-numerical clues and misdirections, near-invisible subplots, and the overarching themes of this graphic novel. After reading the essay, your opinion on the book will likely have been changed or enhanced without a re-reading of the book itself, though you'll want to do that as well.
Somewhat less satisfying is #6, though now I at least can talk about Virgil Partch for a minute or two without discomfort or outright fraud. But what ensures the issue's value is a generous section given over to cartoonist Seth, as he talks about some of his influences and obsessions, his approach to commercial illustration, projects like Aimee Mann's Lost In Space CD cover and booklet and of course, Clyde Fans and Palookaville. Better yet, though, there are fascinating looks at projects-in-progress like the autobiographical 155 Ashwood Street, the whimsical fiction The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists and the related, factual study, The Gang of Seven. One even gets to see phony book covers, fake self-granted awards (1996's "Excellence in Nostalgia" Award from "The Loyal Order of the Midnight Igloo," assembled from parts of real trophies and plaques, and even fully painted, detailed models for a city Seth is slowly building, for fun and to help him visualize a massive project. Longtime fans may also be encouraged, or disappointed, that instead of collecting early Palookaville material, he is reworking the story from issues #2 and 3 with a total reworking, actually removing the coming-of-age Seth as the main character. This is a fascinating, generous gift to readers from a valuable, inspiring artist.
Bluesman #1 (of 3) by the Eisner-nominated The Castaways team of Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo, is a moody thriller about two itinerant blues musicians, Lem and Ironwood, and their scuffles and scrapes on the way to a recording session in the big city designed to launch them out of their hardscrabble existence. Actually, it could have gone that way and been a fine book, but Vollmar takes a more suspenseful route this time out, making a momentary victory for sensuality over spirituality into what promises to be a desperate fight for survival for one good man. As one expects from our gifted artists, Vollmar is crafting a more ambitious story here, while retaining his command of 1920s idioms, as well as having the patience to let the story breathe and therefore heighten the suspense. The only, minor, complaint would be the portions of historical text meant to quickly give the reader the tenor of the times. They're distracting, and would be put to better use at the front or back of the book, away from the story. Callejo has improved as well in gestures and facial expressions of suffering, reserve and lust. His style is so well-suited to the material because it looks as if lit by kerosene, a shadowy world hard to navigate, and by which one is easily subsumed.
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