12 November 2009

Daily Breakdowns 036 - Strange Pope Authority God

After immersing myself in the heady works of the Magus, Alan Moore, it's kind of nice to dip into some new floppies and see what's going on there. First, though, some thoughts on other critics. I think it must be some unwritten rule that critics leave other critics alone, but I've always felt they're just as much fair game as creators themselves. Some guys I read for their style, some their taste, and some because they make me laugh in a way they hadn't intended. I like some of the critics who've come out in the past two or three years a lot, but I also pay keen attention to guys who started out around the same time as me, around the start of this decade.

Take Don MacPherson. He used to be ubiquitous on the 'net with then-partner Randy Lander, but most would have called him the Roeper of that pairing, as Randy had a tad more style and humor. And both suffered from the grind of feeling like they had to review a dozen titles a week, so they fell into robotic phrasing like "continues to impress" week after week. I hadn't paid that much attention to Don since then, but I have to say he's pretty sturdy. This Wall-E #0 review is a nice effort, and made me at least consider picking up a book I had #0 interest in before then.

Graeme McMillan's another veteran, although he started out be more of a provocateur and ringleader than a reviewer. I don't follow him regularly but found this latest outing fascinating in the way he alternates between a sort of stand-up comic's hostility ("here's a clue") and the disturbing trait of worrying about the tastes of others ("am I the only one? I am, aren't I?"). Also, why cop to your column being late or irregular? They showed up, didn't they? Don't let 'em see you sweat, Graeme.

Strange #1 (of 4)
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Emma Rios
Published by Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I like Mark Waid fine, but this seems to be just one of those proposals that got picked up because Marvel wanted to put out something Dr. Strange while some other team prepares a new monthly series or something. In this one, Strange has been left abandoned by magic due to some act of hubris, and so he's taking in a minor league baseball game, because he's only lived in a city with two major league baseball teams for the past 40 fucking years and no one has ever seen him express the slightest interest in baseball.

Whew, sorry. Taking my pills....Oh...kay...

So he has a meet-cute with a girl whose granddad owns the team, and he acts like a loud, obnoxious fan, because I guess Waid really wants to put his own stamp on the character. I think the stamp will wash off pretty quickly, though. Soon enough, it turns out the game is an illusion and what's really going on is a bunch of demons doing stuff on the field (the art is not very clear) and the main demon is here to collect on a thirty year old soul deal that led to the team winning their division this long. The girl helps Strange do the spells to solve things, since his hands don't work so well, and all is well. With a half-assed script and lots of pages of hard-to-follow demon action with tentacles and three or four kinds of fire, this is a minor league effort all around.

Pope Hats #1
By Ethan Rilly
Published by AdHouse Books. $4.00 USD

Part of the contents were originally published as a minicomic, but now with some Xeric Grant money, Rilly has finished it off as a handsome, cardstock-covered comic. The inside cover indicates that the story concerns one Frances Scarland quietly battling demons, but that's not really true. The one battling demons, at least figuratively, is Frances' best friend, Vickie, a nice young woman who won't listen to Frances' advice to be healthier, more social, and to stop getting blitzed and sleeping with the guy who's wrong for her. Meanwhile, Frances argues--not battles--with Saarsgard, a kind of non-threatening, Pac-Man-type of ghost, who seems to want to talk her through her stress rather than really haunt her. Unless you're violently opposed to magical realism, it's kind of an interesting direction for the story. The other story in the book, which I suspect may have been the minicomic part, as it's less ambitious, finds Frances telling a couple unsettling supernatural stories over drinks with friends.

Rilly has a nice line, something like a smoother Farel Dalrymple, realistic but cuter (characters don't have nostrils or irises). He spots blacks well, creates believable environments, and the characters carry themselves with the weight of real people. Very impressive artistically. Storywise, he has an ear for dialogue but tries a little too hard to be clever in spots. The characters just need to breathe a little more and start telling him what they want to talk about. Very impressive debut, though.

Supergod #1
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Garrie Gastonny
Published by Avatar Press. $3.99 USD

There's just a little too much Ellis Avatar product for me to keep up with, plus I don't seem to read any really ecstatic praise for it. But I liked the cover design and the title is suitably ballsy, so I gave it a shot. In standard Ellis fashion, a very smart guy dumps a ton of sci-fi exposition on the reader, interspersed with some drug use to keep it interesting. It's pretty interesting on its own, though: several countries had their own superhuman projects going on, with varied results. Britain sent a crew of two men and a woman into space in an intentionally poorly shielded rocket, whereupon space sports bonded with the crew and the rocket returned with a three-headed, mushroom covered, silent giant that scientists like to beat off to (Ellis also feels compelled to inject sex into his stories, though almost never in a love scene kind of way). Meanwhile, India's experiment yielded a blue-skinned being whose directive to protect India has backfired, as the being, named Krishna, thinks culling some of the population and leveling some cities are appropriate measures. Finally, we get to the USA's model, and he appears to be a soldier with a yen to fight crime, so I guess we'll see if Ellis has some Captain America riffs to work out or something else in mind. Solid work from Gastonny, who has a crisp kind of Chris Weston style, less distinctive than a lot of Avatar artists I've seen but also honestly more professional. Hard to judge Ellis' work quite yet as it's all set up and there are really no characters to latch onto yet aside from the pot-smoking, possibly doomed scientist.

The Authority: The Lost Year Reader
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Gene Ha
Published by Wildstorm. $2.99 USD

It's ironic that this story is called "The Lost Year," but not for the obvious reason that it took a long time between the first and second issue, both collected here, or the fact the series hasn't continued since then and it's only now getting back in production with Keith Giffen taking Morrison's plot and carrying on with different artists. No, it's ironic because I honestly didn't know these issues even existed until very recently. I was buying trades and graphic novels but almost no monthly comics. So while this issue is old hat to a lot of readers, for me it's like, "Great! Two comics for $2.99!"

I could see how the first issue might have annoyed readers, as The Authority doesn't show up and the story takes its time with pedestrian marital strife and lots of murky, underwater scenes. Still, Ha does a great job with either. and the coloring by Art Lyons is outstanding. The series made its reputation early for being bigger and bolder than any other superhero comic, so it has a lot to live up to, and yet I think Morrison was right in a) focusing on some quieter, more human moments, for contrast, and b) setting the big, bold stuff in new areas, namely the sea.

By the second chapter, we get good takes on all the characters, and it's nice to see The Doctor taking more of a lead role. Morrison's story idea is an unusual one: set the team down on an alternate Earth with no superhumans at all. It's not the most original idea but a smart one for a team who historically has been very visible and active on their own Earth, so now their outlandishness is only going to be amplified by being on an Earth not at all prepared for them. All Morrison really gets to do is have a few jokes about comics and to show The Authority as the fascists they are, but this is confined only to dialogue. It's too bad we won't see what he and Ha would have done. Giffen is quite a different writer than Morrison, and few writers do their best working from someone else's plot, so odds are this is just a brief but occasionally stunning glimpse at a creative pairing that wasn't meant to be.

Christopher Allen

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05 October 2009

The End of the Millennium Arrives on Wednesday

You may recall that Planetary was to have been finished around the same time as the 20th century. It appears that time has finally come.

This Wednesday sees the arrival in stores of Planetary #27, the final issue of the sometimes-celebrated series by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday and Laura Martin. In a post on his LiveJournal, Ellis reflected on the end of the series, saying "It’s a book I associate with bad times: protracted illnesses, big arguments...my physical collapse and months in bed, and my dad’s long illness and eventual death. All of these things are intertwined with PLANETARY for me, and make it difficult to enjoy the moment."

Of course, any individual is likely to suffer some setbacks and tragedies in any given ten year span, but it did seem at times like this particular comic book was cursed -- a phenomenon that would have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that, at its best, it was one of the most exciting and beautiful adventure comics being published. Together with The Authority #1-12 with Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and (again) Laura Martin, these two series represent a pretty high peak for Ellis's writing powers and excellent comic books that are always worth re-reading and losing one's self in.

But of course, it's been hard to judge the series as a whole as long as this one, last issue remained unpublished. I'll admit I'm pretty psyched to hear it's finally coming, and am hopeful that DC/Wildstorm will finish out the gorgeous series of hardcover collections and a second and final Absolute Edition so that those of us who have, shall we say, fully committed to the series, can reach closure as we arrange them all on our bookshelves and are able to re-read them over and over again whenever we want, bwah ha ha ha ha.

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