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Many apologies to those of you who like reading my stuff and wondered what the hell happened to me. The truth is, in the past couple months, Iíve experienced some major causes of stress, such as moving into a new house, then moving out of said house into my own apartment, due to a separation and probable divorce from my wife of eight years. And with my boss resigning a couple weeks ago from our start-up office, and my only co-worker giving her notice by the time you read this, Iíll probably have to find another job very quickly. So you could say Iíve got a few things on my plate.
I just wanted to let you know this as an explanation, not for any kind of sympathy. Since Iíve been writing reviews, Iíve learned that what works for me is to just be honest, though some would be surprised how easy it is to give readers the impression youíre some kind of connected big shot just for getting a few free comics now and then and being able to string a few sentences together. Weíve all got problems, and if some other writers want to just stick to the business of reviewing, thatís fine, but I would rather just lay it all out there and be open about whatever comes to mind, whatever Iím feeling.
One thing Iím appreciative of with this whole experience is that it teaches me that Iím not quite so superior as I may sometimes convince myself. I donít always know whatís coming, nor how to properly react to it. Anyway, Iím trying. I donít know if itís a good sign or just a bad habit, but after a good month of having no interest in writing about comics, I feel like getting back on the horse. So, hereís a pretty big column, some of it written weeks ago, with several reviews added in just the past few days. I donít really think after this that my CBGalaxy output will dramatically increase again, as I am working on writing some comics that should actually be published next year, so at least thatís some good news to report. If youíve sent me anything in the past couple months, Iím doing my best to get to it. Please send it to the new address at the end of the column. Thanks.
You know, ever since folks started writing about comics online, there have been columns and essays and blog entries about how the medium doesnít get enough respect and/or attention. These heartfelt words are also often offered with suggestions for turning things around, getting a little comics activism going by handing out free comics to people, things like that. And thatís fine-Iím not going to criticize anyone for enthusiasm. But it seems to me that things really have changed, as far as public awareness of comics. I see Art Spiegelmanís new IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS talked about in Entertainment Weekly -- even Brian K. Vaughanís EX MACHINA has been mentioned, twice. Car commercials use animation (Mr. Opportunity) to hawk their wares; Superman shills for American Express. Harvey Pekar not only gets a feature made about his life, heís featured prominently, narrates, and thereís actually some decent production value given this quirky little romance. HELLBOY is not only produced faithful to the comic, but creator Mike Mignola is included in the entire creative process and treated on the DVD documentaries as an equal to writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Frank Miller is co-directing the film of his graphic novel series SIN CITY with Robert Rodriguez. Comics are cool again. Or at least, theyíre cool idea generators that other people will make movies out of. And thatís really not anything to be too depressed about. Itís a start. I mean, Superman made for dull, tightassed comics for the large part of his history, and yet it only takes fairly recent work like the reprinted SUPERMAN ADVENTURES by Mark Millar or the more recent SECRET IDENTITY by Kurt Busiek and Mark Waidís SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT to show the character is still viable and interesting.
The problem, then, is, as it has always been, not so much that no one knows comics are still being published (I witnessed a mover ask this very question a couple weeks ago, while moving my comics to a new house), but that those who donít know are often not missing out on all that much. Yes, more needs to be done to raise public awareness of good comics, but more importantly, there need to be more good comics. In a yet-to-run piece Alan David Doane and I are writing about the beginnings of the Brian Michael Bendis AVENGERS run, we discuss the problems of writing story arcs that must be a certain length, as they will inevitably be collected in trade paperbacks that must be at least 100 pages in order for their spines to stand out on a bookstore rack. I took the long view there that contemporary writers are just now getting used to this format, and are in a period of adjustment, but now Iím not so sure. When a minor league baseball player comes to the big leagues, he only gets about one season to learn to hit the kind of breaking ball he doesnít see in the minors. If he canít adjust and is always striking out on a curve or slider, heís not going to last long. Weíre kind of at that stage right now, only the big league teams arenít doing much to develop their players, and the ones who are decent often find themselves with so much work that they have to pump out stuff thatís just okay rather than excellent. And why not? No one punishes them. Anyway, in that spirit, letís look at a variety of work, from the amateurish to the polished.
Eclipse & Vega Super-Sized Special
Up to now, I'd only read the second issue of Eclipse and Vega, and found it to be one of the worst superhero comics I've ever read, a true chore to even finish, with confusing, hackneyed writing and really vulgar art that made me think the artist actually hated women. Well, just like in school, one may consider this a backhanded compliment, but this really does get the "Most Improved" Award. To put it simply, the difference here is that Colt is no longer the main writer, having hired the talented scribes Yambar and Patrick to write two of the three stories, with Colt writing just one. Actually, Colt is listed as co-writer with Patrick of the "Origin of Packaging-Man," but knowing Patick's humor from CRACKURZ and elsewhere, this one is clearly more his work than Colt's, whom I assume contributed more to the Canadian details and in-jokes in the story. Packaging-Man is a strange character, a cliched Canadian superhero borrowing from the origins of much better characters like Captain America and others, and he's also a kind of stand-in for Colt himself; in fact, his last name is Colt. Thankfully, Patrick has reworked what was a confusing cry for help into a passable supporting character in the E/V universe.
Colt's own story is an awkward but sincere short about a middle-aged man learning to live with the loss of his legs by experiencing a superhero fantasy camp put on by Eclipse and Vega. Seems to me that he should be trying to get as close to his former self as possible, rather than pretending to be the superhero he can never be, but Colt's heart is in the right place, even though the dialogue is very stilted and the piece as a whole has the creepy feel of a Viagra ad.
The best story is the longest, and this is by Yambar and Morrison. Itís a delightfully twisty, plot-packed romp thatís suitable for all ages, transforming superheroines Eclipse and Vega from tawdry yet inhuman to a couple of spunky, sarcastic gals who fight the good fight while still being able to talk about shopping. Yambar makes an exquisite silk purse of this particular sowís ear, and sets a new course for the characters that Colt would be foolish not to follow.
Scorn #1 (of 4)
According to an essay by Moyers, this story started out as something more superheroic, but itís hard to tell that from the published contents. What we have is a boy who didnít have many friends who is befriended by another boy, and then suddenly our hero is an adult and some punks are torching his hot rod for kicks, setting him off on a mission of vengeance. A lost car isnít exactly the greatest motivation for heroism, but okay, maybe something worthwhile will come of this. Unfortunately, Neudorf is a truly bad artist at this stage, having picked up some of the surface details of artists like Ashley Wood and Bill Sienkiewicz (heís scratchy) but without their foundation in solid anatomy. You have to know the rules before you break them, after all. In fact, Neundorf draws his figures with bodies far too small in comparison to their heads. This turns out to be sadly appropriate, though, given the stunted, immature quality of the writing, as Moyers absolutely ruins what little he started with an appallingly insensitive bit of fantasizing near the end. See, our hero is about to take down the auto arsonist when he sees the guyís gang is about to rape a comely lass. He saves the day, and of course, when they get back to her place, the girl wants to show her gratitude by getting naked and jumping on top of him, because thatís just what women do when theyíve narrowly escaped being raped. Have hot sex on your terms, honey, right? Wrong. It takes what had been an awkward but earnest, badly drawn comic right down to exploitative trash.
Sock Monkey: Uncle Gabby
Millionaire seems to be a pretty complicated, conflicted guy, and while I imagine most of his readers prefer the scabrous humor of his MAAKIES strip, the gentler side displayed in his SOCK MONKEY work has offered significant pleasures as well. The black-and-white stories have been mostly all-ages fare, but with a recognizable dark side underneath, while they are so beautifully drawn adults would probably appreciate the care put into them more than children.
Millionaireís first full-color graphic novel, THE GLASS DOORKNOB, was a handsome but rather thin effort, but in UNCLE GABBY he lets his imagination run a little wilder, with an hallucinatory adventure for the beloved stuffed animal Uncle Gabby and his companion Mr. Crow that, by its end, shows everything we thought we knew about Gabbyís world, and his beloved owner Ann-Louise, to be a lie created by intense yearning. Itís too deep and sad for kids, but in trusting the tale to take him where it must, Millionaire has created one of his richest, most emotional works. I have a feeling this one will be largely ignored, but itís really worth finding.
Mr. Monster: Worlds War Two
There's a place in this reviewer's heart, and on his bookshelf, for pure entertainment. Context-free, action-heavy adventurous fare delivered with more enthusiasm and energy than insight. All I ask is a bit of wit and skill mixed in with the escapist thrills.
But darn the luck, Gilbert doesn't meet me halfway. I don't know too much about Mr. Monster, but other than some biographical strips on comics greats in Alter Ego, there hasn't been much new material for years, especially in color. With the prospect of a new, color one-shot for a new publisher, Gilbert should have pulled out all the stops to make this a vibrant, compelling (re)introduction to the character and his world. Instead, we get a breezy but rather empty story where Mr. Monster helps stop a Martian invasion in 1969, with an anti-establishment chick tagging along. We are only shown that Monster has some sort of working relationship with the government, but can act pretty much on his own. The Martians--drawn in classic Mars Attacks! 50s style, with exposed brains inside bubble helmets--have been working towards this invasion since the 50s, capturing and mind-controlling humans. And, for reasons unexplained, they're also Nazis, and their tentacled leader even looks like Hitler. And thatís all right-I donít need it all explained to me-but give me a reason to care. Give me something about this guy thatís interesting and funny besides his costume. The empty suit superhero with a lantern jaw, fists of iron, and zero personality is one aspect of Golden Age comics Gilbert would have done well not to emulate.
JLA: Classified #1
In time for stocking stuffing and fourth-quarter reporting, DC is releasing a new batch of series, with this being probably the highest-profile superhero book. The creative line-up is pretty much a no-brainer -- Morrison was the last JLA writer to really click, and McGuinness' larger-than-life style has been successful with both Superman and Superman/Batman. Why not have these guys do their thing in a quick, zingy three-parter with the Ultra-Marines, Gorilla Grodd, and Batman having to save the day with some readymade JLA robots from his "sci-fi room." This is not Morrison trying to break new ground; he's just having fun and passing it on, the only "mad idea" involved here is that a witty superhero book that puts a smile on your face is a great way to spend fifteen minutes of your day.
Sylvia Faust #1
This is the latest series from Jason (Sword of Dracula) Henderson, who seems intent on giving Steve Niles a run for his money as prolific comics horrormeister. This one has some supernatural elements, but isn't much scarier than Bewitched, really, though that's intentional. It seems to be about a faerie trying to pass as human and getting into misadventures. In this case, a drunken, hasbeen actor needs to be magically coerced into appearing at a drafthouse showing of some of his old action films. I'd say it reminds me in this early stage of Touched By An Angel without the heavyhanded religious moralizing, except that would mean there was nothing left. Instead, let's just say it's an offbeat, supernaturally-tinged story that could go about anywhere at this point. Pretty appealing, though Greg Scott's art here, now in color and even sketchier and more impressionistic than his fill-in on Gotham Central, is a little too flat and sometimes downright awkward in spots. Both front and back covers are more detailed and very well done, but the new style on the interiors hasn't quite been worked out yet, especially the practice of using colors in place of traditional black ink outlines. I can see how this might work to portray Sylvia's p.o.v., or the dimension sheís from, but this should be contrasted with a recognizable world and not the abstraction and minimalism used throughout.
Swamp Thing #8
I have to be honest; I really donít get a good feeling about new series with no permanent writer attached. Iím not talking about anthology books like Solo, which is more of a revolving spotlight on a particular artist, but unless one is going to make Swamp Thing an anthology with each story as different in subject matter, tone, and art from the others as possible, I donít see the need for it, aside from maintaining a copyright. The first arc by Andy Diggle and Breccia set up a new status quo for Swamp Thing and his wife and daughter quite well, but then Will Pfeiffer and Richard Corben turned in some very competent but utterly forgettable filler. Next week, Dysart takes the reins, with Breccia back on art, for the beginning of this six-parter. With such an excellent artist backing him up, Dysart canít go too wrong, and he does well with the mystical/elemental gobbledygook, meaning it sounds good while youíre reading it but youíre damned if you can remember a word. He handles Abigail and Tefe well enough, but I must confess Iím not that interested in seeing them bond. Nothing wrong with his execution; I just want some new blood. In fact, aside from reworking the Swamp Thing/Alec Holland status quo to dump the parts he doesnít like, Dysart doesnít really bring anything new to the book. This is not so much a criticism of him as it is a general criticism of what I see too much of from writers allowed only brief access to classic characters. They, and/or their editors, too often seem to go for the most obvious and familiar stories; that is, they bring back the big, long-time villain. Here, itís Arcane. Robert Kirkman on Captain America, itís the Red Skull. I understand these may be dream jobs for these guys, and they figure why not go for the big guns, but what this usually means is that theyíre creating stories meant to be lumped in with dozens or hundreds of others. Maybe this will be one of the best Arcane stories ever; I hope so. But Iíd sure like to see a writer come in to write a long-running series and actually create something new for it, just because he can.
I group these quite different books together because I have largely the same comments about them. Brown emerged just a few years ago with his sensitive girl-trouble graphic novel Clumsy, followed by more of the same in Unlikely and some anthology stories. Here he tries his hand at superhero comics, which is kind of a bar mitzvah or confirmation for most cartoonists. They should have given up the faith long ago, but then how do you get the party and the money? To be fair, this is not straight superhero comics, with their violence and earnest moralizing. Itís not even parody, pointing out the goofy elements of superhero comics that were pointed out by Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood and others fifty years ago. Itís something else, and Iím afraid that something is often less than either. Itís sort of a calculated slapdashedness, Brown avoiding entirely many of the elements of superhero comics ripe for parody. His characters are ridiculous, but in a childlike way. Bighead is unknowable, changing from story to story per Brownís whim. Stories usually end abruptly, with a concerted effort not to be dramatic. Occasionally, Brown hits on a funny idea, such as Bighead destroying a kind alien because he canít understand his language and thinks heís invading Earth, not helping it, but even this has been done before. I wouldnít say I disliked the book, but it does make one wonder what the point was.
Same deal with Stickleback, which frankly reads like one of the lesser shorts from one of Annableís Grickle or Hickee books, blown up to absurd proportions. Thereís a funny scene or two, such as a man being mocked at a urinal, but for the most part Annable makes it hard to care or understand the main character and his obsession with little toilet paper men. I felt like this wisp of a story was something that so pleased Annable that he just kept going with it until he had something of graphic novel length, but he never went back and honestly appraised how he might make the book accessible and appealing to the reader. I donít mean to get in his head, just as I donít presume to know Brownís motivation for Bighead. The bottom line is that these are two talented cartoonists whose work I admire, who coincidentally followed their respective muses down alleys I wasnít all that interested, or just unable, to follow them.
Without the fanfare it deserved, Darwyn Cooke finished off his grand DC: The New Frontier this month with issue #6. I believe when the project was first solicited, there were supposed to be eight issues, and indeed, some chapters have felt truncated. It would be nice to see an Absolute Edition that allowed Cooke to expand or add scenes to come closer to his original vision. Still, this finale worked well in spite of that, and perhaps even because of the condensed feel, as we get a lot of action scenes, one after another. Cooke has a real knack for quickly getting to the pure, heroic essence of these "Greatest Generation" era characters without all the baggage, and delivers a story that's not only thrilling but upliftingÖGreen Lantern: Rebirth #1 (of 6) marks the first Geoff Johns-written comic Iíve purchased in quite some time, and itís not bad. In fact, I wasnít even going to buy it until the shop owner mentioned what a hot book it was, the return of Hal Jordan as GL, and despite not being a Jordan or GL fan, I snapped it up like a true fanboy. It turns out to be a decent set-up, interesting and well-drawn. Johns has a pretty thankless task, actually, grimly and slowly restoring Jordan and correcting years of bad editorial decisions. He does go about this in obvious ways, such as the (not) mysterious portent of an area all but demolished except for an unharmed statue of Jordan. I realize that DC wouldnít allow him to just bring the guy back in one issue, wiping his brow and saying, ďWhew, Iím glad that long fucking nightmare is over!Ē but I wish more creativity (and less glum violence) had gone into the signs pointing to his return. Still, itís not bad, and Iíll probably continue with it.
Iíll leave you with this: I never want to read another review where a bad book is excused because itís not that expensive. I know one guy who reviewed a seven dollar graphic novel and gave it a pretty easy ride because it was only seven bucks. Hey, thatís seven bucks wasted! You wouldnít be so nonchalant about getting a bad salad or burger at Chiliís for the same amount of money -- it might even ruin your night. So why give the shitty book a pass?
-- Chris Allen