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Breakdowns – Somnambulance Chasers
Tom Spurgeon recently gave an interview detailing, among other things, his reviewing process, and I really liked that he will pick books he’s read out of a pile and just review what he feels like, rather than reading something and immediately reviewing it. This way, I think you’d be relying more on an honest, lasting impression rather than a reaction. It’s cathartic at times to really tear into something bad, but often I find I’ve overstated my case. So, here are some reviews of books, most of which I’ve read several days or even weeks ago, with quite a few first issues as well.
Buddy Does Seattle is the first half of Peter Bagge’s longest, deepest comics work. And I do mean deepest, for in addition to the “We All Scream For Heroin” gags and the penile warts and hairy vaginas and slapstick is an honest, thoughtful observation on an artist’s youth and emotional growth. Buddy Bradley is pretty much Pete Bagge as a callow youth of ten years previous—that it takes place in the grunge-era Seattle is fun if slightly dated window dressing. The important thing is that Bagge had the time for perspective—he finds in his old self, or then-current self, things to work on, and probably invented some other things, and puts them all in Buddy. Buddy is slovenly, a petty thief, confrontational, stubborn, defensive, led by his dick…but right in the opening story, “My Pad and Welcome to It,” one sees he can also be sympathetic, encouraging, loyal, a good observer of people’s eccentricities, and aware of at least some of the aforementioned faults, whether he’s ready to change or not. Bagge’s cartooning style is already formed and well-suited to the material, but would continue to improve, and he knows all his characters already, though these would deepen as well, especially Buddy’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Lisa. It’s excellent work, the abundant humor often lowbrow but always high-yield. And kudos to Fantagraphics for getting around the fact that the original series was called Hate, an angry young man’s name for the book that often got in the way of the comic’s contents or kept it out of the hands of those who might like it. This manga-sized collection features the first fifteen issues as well as a nice interview with Bagge about the series. $14.95
Runners #1 by Sean Wang is a “remastered” edition of the debut issue of this black-and-white space opera, created especially for Free Comic Book Day. Wang has a strong line and clear storytelling skills well-suited to an all-ages adventure, and the character designs are fun, diverse and non-threatening. He also relies more on light humor than jargon and epic nonsense, and this is also a good thing, though I can’t say I laughed at any of it. I thought the grayscale work was good, layouts were good—I can’t say a negative thing except I just didn’t care what happened, so I guess I’d have to fault the script in not making me interested in any of the characters. They just didn’t stand out to me, nor did the dangerous situation or the cliffhanger. I’m not going to hammer on the book; it feels like Wang knows what he’s doing, but what he’s doing isn’t something I want to follow.
Temporary #2 by Damon Hurd and Rick Smith is enough of an improvement over the first issue that it makes me see the first in a different light, not that it was bad or anything. This issue begins “The Real Me”, with temp Envy St. Claire assigned to make copies at a police precinct, where she encounters Jim, the detective whose multiple personalities are so effective in interrogation no one knows it’s not an act. Envy has yet to really come forward as a lead character—she’s more a device to set up the situations and aid Hurd in his manipulations of the readers—but these looks at various kinds of madness are increasingly entertaining. Still not enamored of the style Smith uses on the book, but a close look reveals clever storytelling and unusual touches on every page. $2.95. Origin Comics
CSI: Secret Identity #1-3 is Steven Grant’s first work on IDW’s licensed series (there are three issues left to go), and when one thinks about it, he’s as good a choice to write this book as there is. He lives just outside Las Vegas, where the show is set, and his best work in comics is crime-based. Mainstay artist Gabriel Rodriguez is on hand again to ensure a seamless transition from the Max Allan Collins work, but though those were enjoyable, Grant’s story is a marked improvement so far, a closer match to the television show in terms of plotting and a genuine feel for the history of the city. The CSI team here are investigating a man murdered for accidentally videotaping something important during the demolition of an outdated Vegas hotel, and it all has something to do with the guy who originally had the hotel built. Grant gets the characters well—their dry humor, camaraderie, quirks and intensity—and Rodriguez is getting even better at accurate depictions of the actors’ faces. The only minor complaint is that Ashley Wood is no longer providing the “flashback” artwork, replaced by Steven Perkins, whose grubby style makes every character look like zombies. Fortunately, the flashbacks are brief. $3.99
Funny Book was Fantagraphics’ Free Comic Book Day offering—their first, I believe—and it’s one of the best altcomics primers ever, worth five bucks at least. Where else can one get both Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Richard Sala, Johnny Ryan, Pete Bagge and Ivan Brunetti? The selections are all chosen well, if not all “funny”. Really, this is a no-brainer. The trio of “Frogmouth” stories form Jaime are tasty slices of life, Ryan’s “Insulterator” tale is a knockout, and Sophie Crumb is the coolest girl in comics right now—cool because she’s so honest and unafraid to be uncool. Any reviewer worth a damn should be handing these out to friends and any reader should be scoring a copy. Critics who don’t like this should be reviewing new Cheez-Its or Twizzlers flavors.
Cheez-Its Twisterz: Cheddar and More Cheddar is a brand new offering from the Sunshine Biscuits folks, and unfortunately, it’s a step back from the forward-thinking “Hot Wings and Cheesy Blue” flavor. That was a strong debut for the Twisterz line of dual-flavored baked cheese snacks, making clear the reason they were twisted is to somehow marry two contrasting flavors. Cheddar and more Cheddar—what’s that supposed to mean? Are they giving up already? Cheddar and Monterey Jack, that I could understand. But don’t tell this reviewer this contains “two flavors” when it’s just a white-and-orange twist with the same old fake cheddar salt flavor from 1983 slathered on it. Someone decides this is what Cheddar tastes like, and then we’re forced to eat this same flavor sprinkled on everything. Kind of reminds me of how gum, fruit chews and even soda all have the same “strawberry” flavor, yet this flavor is nothing like real strawberries. Anyway, the crunch is appealing, as is the size, and sure, the “Limited Edition” Star Wars Episode III Chewbacca packaging will go on my Star Wars Foodstuffs shelf next to the Star Wars fruit snacks, but one can’t help but be disappointed at the Sunshine Biscuiteers running out of flavor combinations so soon. $2.59. Cheez-It.com.
Blecky Yuckerella is the latest book from Johnny Ryan. It will make you rethink the whole concept of excrement—yours, his, and everyone else’s. It’s funny, in the way that almost no one can pull off anymore, at least not since Bergman stopped making films. It made me give up sorrow, which I was going to do for Lent, anyway, but why wait? No poverty today. Yeah yeah. Serpentine.
Red Sonja #0 is written by Michael Avon Oeming with Mike Carey, which suggests Carey bowed out prior to completion, but who knows? It certainly doesn’t have the wit he brings to his other work. I haven’t read Oeming’s Thor, but he did bring a fresh approach to Norse mythology in Hammer of the Gods, while here he’s mainly just revamping the same Robert E. Howard tropes, so far anyway. For an almost-free introductory issue, we get only a taste of action at the end, Sonja looking sullen and bored for much of the issue, and she even passes out at a tavern, not the most exciting introduction for a bad girl book. Once the fighting begins, though, it sparks up a bit. The art is by Mel Rubi, and while I’m sure there was some intention to make this look similar to the Dark Horse Conan series currently being published, the art looks instead very much like 1602, partly due to this series also utilizing colorist Richard Isanove. Great cover by Greg Land (Alex Ross and John Cassaday did good ones as well). Worth at least getting the first issue to see where it goes. Dynamite Entertainment. $.25
The latest SOLO is, no offense to Darwyn Cooke, the strongest offering yet in this unusual series. Howard Chaykin serves up six strong stories, staying mostly away from the sex to instad focus on his other abiding interests, history, rebels, and racism. I suppose most are fairly superficial by the end, having to wrap up in eight pages with jokes or ironic twists, but they still work well. The best is the last, "Horrors", which is the most personal, basically a snapshot of Chaykin's early days. DC Comics$3.50
Forbidden #0 by Samuel Vera and Anibal Arroyo, is not a good self-published effort. The biggest problem is the art, both Arroyo's amateurish style and the overbearing computer coloring and texture effects Vera uses to try to hide the basic flaws. Vera's script is a little better, and gets points for packing a lot of story in there, but maybe too much. Some scenes, such as a guard revealing his love for a woman, only to be killed by her, needed more time to build up. More time needed to be spent developing the lead character, his relationship with his father, and with his sister. Too bad the many pages devoted to house ads couldn't have been used for this purpose, because, really, did I need to hear that "the Unbelievable Laundry Detergent Man" was in development as a film? Am I supposed to believe this? The black word balloons and the lettering in general are annoying and unclear as well. Vera also needs to refrain from so much dull regal-speak like, "And now you, with your foolish bravado, your arrogance, expect me, Lord Voxe, to remind--even relive, the pain and torment our people--my people, have longed to forget?!" Ironice that "Lord Voxe" is so hard to listen to. I wish the creators well, but premature debuts of what looks to be a lengthy fantasy epic don't make me want to stay on-board.
Easy Way #1-2 by Christopher E. Long and Andy Kuhn is, I believe, the first non-licensed crime comic from IDW, and it's a winner, a grimy story of a recovering coke addict named Duncan trying to clean up and get his wife and kids to stay in California. As his counselor says, any ideas he has now will be bad ones, and while he doesn't have one of his own, he follows a bad idea from a fellow rehabber, Raz, who wants to first abduct a cop's drug-sniffing dog and then locate a stash of drugs he knows about. When they discover in a trunk not drugs but severed fingers, they know they're in worse trouble than they expected. Issue #2 naturally finds the former owner of this huge cache of cocaine looking to get it back and kill the thieves, and they’re not smart enough to cover their tracks. Unusual for an IDW book, both covers and interiors are on non-glossy cardstock, and the art is black, white and a pitiless maroon, and it all suits the story quite well. Long, who conceived the story while actually in rehab, has an authentic voice here, and Kuhn's art, while somewhat cartoonish, is also up to the task.
Mosquito is the second graphic novel from Dan James, who previously offered The Octopi and the Ocean, a handsome if elusive pseudo-fable. Now he applies his woodcut art style to what's described as a South American folktale involving vampirism, and the results are, frankly, disastrous. Only James, commissioning Top Shelf co-publisher Brett Warnock, and a bull would think printing the entire book in red-and-white is an effective choice. Rather than heighten the tension with a constant reminder to readers of that red, red blood, it just makes the art stand out even less; it's overkill.
Honestly, though, the book would be only marginally improved in black-and-white (with or without red highlights) because James' storytelling is so flat and uninvolving. It's like using photos of paper dolls to tell a story. Folktales endure because they contain situations and characters and morals and even frights that never go out of style, but I'm hard-pressed to find the original elements in James' version. The vampires eat the hero? Really? It's not that I don't like some of James' style--it would make for some attractive stationery--but it's of poor service to the story here.
Jeffrey Brown's Mini-Sulk is a better pick, though not really a step forward in any way. Brown keeps working his self-deprecating groove, though rather than focusing on his contemporary relationships he offers random day-to-day moments and a big chunk of strips looking back at his childhood. There seems to be genuine affection for Brown's brothers here, no long-simmering resentments, but neither does Brown find many moments of real triumph, discovery or regret in his past. Some pranks, some rough-housing, some embarrassment, all seen from a bemused vantage point. Actually, while it's mostly lightweight work here, the looking back strips, plus a couple fantasies of Brown being beaten and bloodied, might indicate either a burrowing in for a more serious upcoming work, or clinical depression. Let's hope if it's the latter, it can be used for the former. Top Shelf Productions
Bad Kids Vol. 1 didn't really work for me OR my kids. Well, I should say the first one, "The Rockthrower", didn't work, as we didn't watch the other two. The concept is there's a "Bad Kid Zoo" to capture and incarcerate bad kids for various offenses, and we see the subjects of the other two films, "Bug Girl" (she kills 'em) and, I think, "Fireboy" (plays with matches) already captured as the Rockthrower is led into the zoo. We've already seen him take inordinate pleasure in throwing rocks through people's windows--he even dances a painfully slow jig before he throws. The press release says this is for all-ages, and it's not going to scare them or anything, but it really didn't quite work as all-ages fare for me. The message is...okay. I mean, obviously no parent wants their kid destroying property, playing with fire, or being cruel to living creatures, but a strange, magical, unmanned place that traps and imprisons them indefinitely seems like a disturbing way to get the point across. More disturbing is the background CGI imagery, which in its textures and the rotating, repetitive camera work is a little too druggy, and the electronic music and sound effects are similary slow and eerie. The character designs are fine, and it's not bad animation, though. I'm not much interested in this effort, but I found it professional enough I'd like to see their next offering. I'll read and review the comic soon. Moronic Entertainment
I bought Action Comics #827 not so much for Gail Simone as for the return to the title for John Byrne. I'd all but given up on him after Doom Patrol and the series before that I can't even remember the name of, but Blood of the Demon has been kind of gratuitous, unpretentious fun and with better art than he's done in years, partly due to inker "Nekros" (Bud La Rosa) not skimping on the detail, and I suspect he's actually adding detail that isn't in Byrne's pencils, as uncommon as that is for an inker, and especially one seemingly embarrassed by the gig that he has to use a fake name. Anyway, Byrne is inked by "Nelson" on Action and it's pretty good as well, though they probably have to work together for a while to really gel. Byrne's Superman has been different, facially, from his classic Superman of 1986-1989 for years now, but it's even more different here, and I'm not crazy about it. However, the body type is the same, and Byrne hasn't lost his grasp of anatomy, or how to draw a short skirt on Lois Lane! I don't like the oddly-shaped panels and he should really be forced to use a grid again, as these weird shapes don't add any excitement whatsoever, whatever he may think. The computer coloring is pretty busy for a Byrne comic, but that's good in this case, as it adds texture to some sparse backgrounds. Simone's script, introducing a malevolent mistress of magnetism named Repulse (or is it really...?) is solid, introducing a new supporting character, Asian-American photog Willis, as well as a nice, warm marital scene with Clark and Lois, and there's even some social conscience, as Superman's brief time in what I take to be the Sudan inspires Clark to begin another book. The ending was such a surprise I want to read it again to see if Simone played fair with the readers, but for now it looks like I'm getting one Superman-related book again. $2.50. DC Comics
Wingnut and Fidget by Brian Clopper features two short stories of a duo of alien adventurers. I can’t say too much else about it. The first story is a little too close an homage to Jabba the Hutt, and the second is less memorable. The art—kind of an all-ages Wallace Wood—is terrific, though, and I’d like to see more of these guys if Clopper goes a little wilder with the stories next time. With this and some of the other work I’ve seen of his, there’s a little too much importance placed on creating something rather than having a story to tell or something to say.
80 Gun is a fairly promising self-published comic by Ayo, a self-described “political rant” which finds him ranging from the dangers of junk food to U.S. foreign policy to that old devil, television, and even how cities bring out the worst in people. This is all delivered with a lot of verve, some decent cartooning with good spotting of blacks and nicely chosen images, but also with the lack of experience or perspective common to someone in their early 20s. Heavy but simplistic moralizing doesn’t go over very well as juvenilia, and hopefully Ayo will continue to refine his message as he observes more of the world. $2.00
Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko is a long-awaited collection of work from Marvel Comics’ second-most important artist. “Sturdy Steve” was there with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee churning out monster stories and science fiction in the early days, before making the successful transition to superheroes with his and Lee’s Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Ditko left Marvel in the mid-60s, never working with Lee again, though he did return in the late 70s taking over Machine Man briefly after Jack Kirby left it, and in the 80s for the short-lived superhero series Speedball, co-plotted with Tom De Falco, somehow, and he did some fill-in issues here and there, and the intent with this volume is clearly to paint a picture of Ditko enjoying a long and fruitful career at Marvel, which simply isn’t the case.
The selection of Ditko’s early shorts with Lee are all well-drawn, though their Serling-lite twists are tame by today’s standards, and possibly even then. The “Linda Brown” story, with its proto-Aunt May and Uncle Ben, is mainly notable for this, rather than the silly mermaid revelation at the end. Although the tales are short, the book could do with one or two fewer, in favor of better, later work. What is notable about these stories, however, is what a master of terror Ditko is. That’s not to say horror, but terror--the terror of living in a crazy, changing world we now know to have been deeply disturbing to Ditko. Look at all the pained, anguished faces he draws, how well he is able to convey the angst of an age. Would that he had been the artist on the would-be teen hit X-Men rather than Kirby, the series might have caught on then rather than a decade later, as Ditko is eminently suited to draw characters who feel awkward and out-of-step with their world. The way he draws Spider-Man’s “spider sense” is the most immediate, effective way to convey paranoia imaginable.
Indeed, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories should have taken up almost all the book, though it should be said what is here is classic material. Spider-Man’s first meeting with the Fantastic Four is somewhat tentatively drawn in spots, and Lee’s scripting is a bit curious, as Peter Parker becomes such a confrontational, greedy blowhard when in costume, when said costume is supposedly a constant reminder of how badly that attitude worked out for him the first time, yet the story is still enjoyable and merits inclusion for historical reasons. Better yet is the classic trio of Spider-Man stories from #31-33, that last issue the justly famous one where Spider-Man struggles to lift an impossible weight, his resolve deriving from his upbringing by his beloved Uncle Ben and Aunt May, and Ditko even provides a rare full-pager here to better display his character’s triumph. The first Annual, with most of Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery together as The Sinister Six, is a hoot as well.
The Doctor Strange stories are just as good, Ditko conjuring sinister and psychedelic atmosphere with a wonderful design sense; characters such as Nightmare, Clea, the Mindless Ones and especially the Dread Dormammu really seeming to come from other dimensions than our own, or at least from the imagination of an artist fully committed to creating unfathomable worlds on the page. The Dormammu epic is second only to the tense serial of Baron Mordo and his minions chasing Strange around the world in the early adventures of the character, plus we get the first Strange adventure and his excellent origin.
The stories above, as well as a solid early Hulk story, are easily worth the cost of this volume, so perhaps one shouldn’t be too hard on the rest of the material chosen. However, there really is no great reason to reprint this early Iron Man adventure against “Mr. Doll” other than the fact it introduces his first red-and-gold costume; the 1981 Daredevil fill-in is marginal at best and shows Ditko’s art much diminished, and then it’s downhill from there. An awful Incredible Hulk fill-in job much worse than the average Hostess Fruit Pie artwork, and then the first issue of Speedball, its unintentional drug reference title the only indication (and a false one) that Ditko was conscious of the world outside in 1988. Jackson Guice does his best inking to make Ditko look contemporary, but the fashions the all-white characters wear belong to several eras, from the 40s (fedoras on bums) to the late 50s (maybe the lead character’s atrocious jacket) to perhaps as late as the 70s (white turtleneck under sportcoat), but that’s about it. Speedball’s power is pretty interesting, but this work represents a footnote at best in Ditko’s career, if not an outright embarrassment, and that description must go to the final story, an Iron Man adventure from Marvel Super-Heroes #8 featuring offbeat villainess Squirrel Girl, and that should be all that needs be said about that. It’s a real shame that in order to cover all eras of Ditko’s Marvel work, the “visionary” tag is put to such a test by the end. This should really have been almost entirely the work Ditko really connected on: Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. That would have been more than enough. Marvel Comics. $29.99
Just so you know, there are some great changes in store for The Galaxy, more an adding of succulent meat than trimming any fat, and no growth hormone involved. You’ll see all this soon. In the meantime, one of the more immediate, and troubling (to me!) changes is that I’m really going to try to keep this column regular, probably biweekly. Thanks for reading.
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