Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Grab Bag: John Bolton's Army of Darkness Adaptation

I suspect that movie adaptations are more likely to turn into period pieces than other kinds of comics, but, even so, this is more interesting as a pop culture artifact than it is as comics.

This is a pre-Spider-Man Sam Raimi, back when he the B-movie version of Joe Dante. (Poor Joe Dante: one of the great sins of modern Hollywood is that he's not directing movies like The Transformers or Tropic Thunder). Based on the Bruce Campbell scene and the dance interlude in Spider-Man 3 I suspect that Raimi would like to get back to his roots in more disreputable (or should that be "less reputable") movies. (My inner-Ambush Bug fan is a little bit alarmed that super-hero movies have become "reputable" in quite the way the have over the last few years.)

Plus, it's painted! Maybe it's just for the prestige value, but John Bolton's concept - undercutting a traditional heroic fantasy illustration style with Ash's smart-ass narration - almost makes it seem like it has genuine aesthetic and thematic purpose, too.

And if Bolton had made this story his own - had been able to rethink it from the ground up - this could have worked. But he doesn't - he's stuck with the Raimi Bros.' script, a good script, but one where undercutting heroic tropes is just one kind of gag or, rather, the pretext for one kind of gag. So what happens is that Bolton's concept ends up making sense (in that I can see what he's up to and why he decided to do it that way) but is still not true to the spirit of the material.

Army of Darkness - the film - is really just a collection of gags using characters and conventions of B horror and fantasy movies. It's loose and jokey, and anarchic. But "painted comics", if not by nature than by association, are the opposite of loose, jokey, and anarchic.

And it isn't just that Bolton's work misses the spirit of the movie, it misses the spirit of the lead performance. What Bruce Campbell does in Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is as central to making that movie work as what Jack Nicholson does in The Shining. In that movie Campbell gives one of the great physical comedy performances in contemporary cinema (up there with Steve Martin in All of Me): a definitive take on the body rebelling against the mind with equally hilarious and hideous consequences. Though his work in Army of Darkness isn't as inspired, it still builds on what he did in the earlier movie.

But, like I said, it's a physical performance: all about movement, about creating a character that behaves like a cartoon, which would be ideal for comics but not for painted comics. It's Bolton's depiction of Ash that really ends up sinking the book: he's too stiff and there's (overall) no sense of movement.

Since none of Ash's characteristics come through in the art, it all has to happen through the narration, and it just feels like there's way too much of it. In fact, because the narration is in something that's recognizable as Ash's voice, it makes the absence of character in the art all the more apparent.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Halloween Grab Bag: 2 Warren Ellis Horror Comics

In Fell Ellis is using his stock set of characters and themes and in Black Gas Ellis isn't doing much beyond recycling bog-standard zombie movie moments, but with Ellis I think that the specifics of any given book are more important that the generalities underlying all of his work. And by "specifics" I mean how Ellis and his collaborators turn his ideas into comics.

With Fell, I love how Ben Templesmith gives all his characters these shifty, squirelly eyes: everyone in Snowtown - the Feral City of the book's subtitle - looks like they're on the verge of having some kind of psychological or emotional breakdown. And for his part, Ellis has come up with the perfect setting for Templesmith's expressionism: this has one of the most effective "generalized-sense-of-unease-and-dread" vibe as any horror fiction I've seen lately* and, at times, it reaches the level of a genuine - if pulpy - moral vision of the world.

Blackgas is a lot less ambitious and wasn't nearly as satisfying to me as other "B-movie" horror comics I've read recently(like Girls or The Walking Dead). Ellis doesn't give Max Fiumara all that much to work with and most of what's here is conventional decompressed storytelling: there's nothing especially inventive or interesting thematically. But what Fiumara does have going for him are the explosions of graphic, gory zombie movie violence. As far as I can tell, these relatively few panels of violence are the raison d'etre of the series.

Well, that's not entirely true. It seems like Ellis is really trying to emphasize the idea that these "zombies" are people that the hero used to know: that they're his whole life and that having to kill them to survive is somewhat traumatic. But none of this is built up effectively. For one thing, all of the characters, all of their relationships, are stock B-movie elements. For another, we only have an issue's worth of "normal" behavior before it turns into Night of the Living Dead, which just doesn't give enough space to build any investment in these stock elements. While I enjoyed it as a piece of splatterstick, I couldn't help feeling that the book came up short.

*Up there with HWY 115.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Some thoughts on 52...

Before getting into my thoughts on 52 (which I just finished reading last night), I want to follow-up a bit on yesterday's post. In her review of Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #2, Nina Stone writes:

After reading this, I feel the fraternity vibe that I got out of that Baltimore panel more than ever. I'm sure their fans are very happy, and they probably should be. This has to be writing that's specifically for them. This is a comic book for DC fans, god, it felt like a love letter to DC fans. If I were to try and judge DC by this one comic book, this Mardi Gras of characters and confusion, they don't want new readers. They just want their current readers to stay, to have babies with them, to buy land. They aren't interested in pledges. Initiation is over. The club is closed.

I want to step back and do a bit of a "thought experiment" here.

Let's say I read chapter 5 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and wrote a review of it that made the same kind of point that Nina is making. I might say: "Based on this chapter, I get that sense that this must be written specifically for Harry Potter fans. I'm sure people who have been following Harry Potter for years are very happy with this chapter, but I don't get the sense that Rowling is looking for new readers. It's like if you haven't already read the other six books and the first 4 chapters of this one, chapter 5 is not meant for you."

Now, this isn't meant as a direct analogy. There are lots of differences between this random Final Crisis spin-off issue and this random Harry Potter chapter. But I think we can say that reading a random chapter from one of the last books in a long-running fantasy series is not the best way of engaging with that material. I'd go further and say that you'd be acting in bad faith if you were basing your generalizations about Harry Potter on that one random chapter, because - obviously - you know you're supposed to start a book series with the first book and a book with the first chapter.* And - equally obviously - the fifth chapter of the seventh book probably shouldn't be welcoming to new readers.** I mean, it might be, but I'd think that would start to get a little annoying if each and every chapter Rowling gave us enough info so that it would function as a stand alone reading experience.

Here's where we get to the differences, though:

If I want to get up to speed with Harry Potter so I can fully understand what's going on in chapter 5 of Deathly Hallows it is easy for me to do so. All I have to do is read the first six Harry Potter books (whose titles are conveniently listed at the beginning of the seventh) and the first four chapters of Deathly Hallows. I can probably pick them all up during a single trip to the bookstore.*** In Nina's terms, this would be an easy club to join.

With Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, things are a lot trickier. There is no "first book, first chapter", no easy reading list. In fact, even being able to figure out what books you'd have to read to understand what's going on it would take a fair amount of knowledge of DC super-hero comics to begin with. Aside from the completely impractical (not to mention insane) plan of reading all of National/DC's super-hero publications from Action Comics #1 on (and all of the publications from companies that National/DC would go onto to buy up and incorporate into their Mythos), there's no "official" set path to get from knowing nothing about DC super-heroes to being able to understand Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds. Not only is this different from Harry Potter, where there's only seven books and no doubt about what order to read them in, it's different from Star Wars and Star Trek, which despite all of the "expanded universe" fiction have a core canon that you're expected to start with and can safely stay within. (The same goes for Tolkien).

Nina puts this in terms of DC not being interested in anyone else joinging the club, but, as I suggested in my last post, I don't think that's quite it. While it's true that there's a higher barrier to entry here than with Harry Potter (or House), that barrier is a necessary part of these comics working in a different way than Harry Potter (or House) works.

What's important to me, though, is not that these comics take more work to appreciate - that they're more exclusive - but that everyone's initiation process is different and everyone's iniation process is "self-directed". I don't like to give out a "reading list" to my friends who are, say, interested in reading 52 or catching up with Final Crisis, because part of the fun of the DC Mythos is that you get to find your own way into it. For me that process included collecting a lot of titles featuring second-or-third string heroes (the '80s Blue Beetle and Blue Devil series, the Wally West Flash), following certain writers who resonated with me (Keith Giffen on Ambush Bug and on Justice League), reading my friends' copies of the big cross-over events, filling in the gaps in my knowledge with Who's Who, etc. I'm not sure at what point I was "in the club", but after a while, just by following a mostly random process, I had enough knowledge of the DC Mythos (and enough investment in it) that the more intricate, convoluted stuff really worked for me.

Which brings me to 52...

I had originally thought of posting commentary every six issues or so, but decided not to because (a) I ended up reading a bunch at a time and the details of the individual issues kept slipping from my mind and (b) I was also reading along with Douglas Wolk's 52 Pickup blog, which seemed to cover most of the ground commentary-wise. So what follows is my "big picture" take.

I liked this series a lot, up through somewhere in the mid 30s when I started to have serious doubts that they'd be able to resolve everything in anything like a satisfactory manner. And I think my doubts were justified: to build on James' comments on my last post, 52 starts out promising a broad - if not deep - exploration of the DC Universe, but ends up, Pokemon-style, doing little more than setting up a bunch of spin-offs. Now, these big even series are always concerned with creating successful spin-offs. I don't mind that kind of commercial motive - all popular art works under some kind of commercial restriction - but in the case of the last quarter of 52 the story starts working less in terms of character, action, and theme and more in terms of getting everything in place for the sequels. I got the sense of the creators running out the clock until the final issue, which tries to fit in about 6 issues worth of exposition/explanation.

Still, the early part of the series is really good and there are great moments throughout. Wolk's commentary seems pretty definitive to me, but I'd point out that reading it all in one chunk, rather than having an entire week to devote to 20-or-so pages probably made me a lot more forgiving of some of the storytelling fumbles. The unforgivable one deals with the reveal in the Elongated Man storyline, which (as Doug points out) is a total cheat.

Ultimately, I think I liked what 52 promised more than what it delivered, which is why I was more gung ho about it back in this post, when it was still making promises. Doug Wolk's Week 52 post really gets at the heart of why I was let down by the ending: most of the characters end up in the same place they started in. You can't say that about Infinite Crisis, which doesn't have as good a critical reputation as 52, but, IMO, is the better series. IC was all over the place (in a lot of ways), but it did, at least, provide a real ending and it never felt like the creators were just treading water.

*Unless you're doing some kind of surrealist take on reviewing fiction.

**Granted: there are lots of different kinds of serial fiction. Not all of it works like Harry Potter. But a lot does.

***It might be harder to track down books in an out-of-print series (I might have to go to exlibris or something), but it would still be pretty easy to know which books I'd have to look for.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Nina Stone has a thoughtful, outsider's p.o.v.-style review of two recent super-hero comics - Punisher #63 and Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #2. Her take on Legion is that it is busy, messy, and impenetrable. It got me thinking: even though I think Geoff Johns is one of the best contemporary super-hero writers, I can't think of anything he's done that I could recommend to someone who wasn't already really invested in super-hero comics. He doesn't do "entry level" super-hero comics.

Johns gives his super hero stories their narrative and thematic oomph by positioning and re-positioning various elements of the DC Mythos. But if you haven't already invested a fairly substantial amount of time reading DC super hero comics, most of what he's doing is going to look meaningless (at best).

And, as much as I like his work, I'm not sure that it would be worth doing the "grunt work" necessary to grok it for anyone who isn't still a teenager. For example, Green Lantern: Rebirth sounds like it should be a good jumping-on point for a newcomer to Green Lantern - especially since Johns intended it to be a lead-in to a continuing Green Lantern series which would focus more on the core elements of the Green Lantern Mythos*. However, Rebirth starts very far away from those core elements and Johns' attempt to straighten out Hal Jordan's extremely convoluted storyline won't resonate with people who don't know and/or care** about that storyline.

For me, that's not really a negative. I'm glad that he's writing these super-hero comics for hardcore super-hero fans. As I've said before, I think there's something unique about DC's mythos-centric stories that you don't find anywhere else, and while "unique" doesn't necessarily equal "good", when these stories are done well by someone like Johns, "unique" is definitely an added value.

And because I do place value on their uniqueness, attacking these kinds of comics because they don't work like other kinds of arts and culture stuff rings hollow to me.*** Part of what I enjoy about Final Crisis and other Mythos-centric super-hero comics is that it is a lot harder to get into by picking up a random mid-series issue than it would be to get into, say, House by watching a random episode from the middle of season 4. I don't think that every super-hero comic should work like Final Crisis, but I don't see it as a strike against them when they do.

*This is an excellent series, by the way. If you twisted my arm, it would be the one Johns comic that I'd recommend to non-hardcore super-hero fans.

**I'd note that a lot of the caring would come from people who think the whole Parallax/Spectre story was a completely awful idea and needs to be undone.

***This isn't what Nina is doing in her post, but I'm directing that last paragraph towards people who are making those kinds of arguments.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp

Juan Jose Ryp is a real cartoonist, which alone sets him apart from most of the artists working on contemporary super-hero comics. Their focus is on stylish and stylized figure drawing, but Ryp has a genuine style that expresses an all-encompassing vision of the world.

In big picture terms, what Ryp is doing isn't revolutionary. In the context of Eurocomics or even American horror comics, Ryp's work wouldn't necessarily stand out. However, Ryp drawing a super-hero comic is a bit like Gene Colan drawing a super-hero comic: because their styles are not conventional within the genre, they can give us a new perspective on the familiar.

Ryp doesn't fetishize figure-drawing. He gives background and characters an equal emphasis: major and minor details delineated with the same clarity. In his work, the human body becomes just another thing (which is what made him the perfect artist to draw Robocop), subject like every other thing to wear, tear, and destruction. The theme of the comic might be "things fall apart", or, given that this is a Warren Ellis super-hero comic, "things fly apart at tremendous speed with hell of a lot of violence and gore involved".

And the way Ryp draws gore is closer to the way Johnny Ryan draws puke than it is to the way other horror/action artists depict violence. His gore is specific gore: bits of flesh, splatters of blood, splinters of bone are all clearly differentiated, all carefully, clearly realized.

Ryp's style helps to give this comic an underground edge that it wouldn't have had it been drawn by Bryan Hitch, Gary Frank, or Steve McNiven. It makes Black Summer a counter-cultural super-hero comic. It's his style that makes the opening image of the Oval Office covered in blood, viscera, and barely identifiable bits and pieces of bodies more than just a provocation and into a nightmarish vision of wish-fulfillment.

And Ryp handles the more conventional super-hero comics elements with just as much skill. There's a extended sci-fi fight between the central villain and a bunch of fighter jets that beats anything in the Iron Man movie.

The story here is familiar: a riff on the super-heroes changing the world for the world's own good premise of The Squadron Supreme (a premise which Ellis has already explored in Stormwatch and The Authority and probably some other places I haven't looked). And, for people who've read a couple of other Ellis comics, most of his standard themes, concerns, and ticks show up. What's more distinctive to Black Summer is the way Ellis uses this set-up to question the idea of what Thomas Sowell dubbed "the quest for cosmic justice", as opposed to the idea of working towards specific, situational justice*. It's "wanting to help actual people" vs. "wanting to realize ambitious, idealistic goal" (or as one character puts it "to be big, to know everyone, for everyone to be good"). And Ryp's art - where the whole is created out of lots of little, specific details - perfectly complements this theme.

*Although I'd note that Ellis' take on the issue is closer to that of John Guare's in Gardenia and Lydie Breeze than it is to Sowell's.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Millennium #1 - "Over"

Writer: Steve Englehart
Art: Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, and Carl Gafford

After Legends, you'd think I'd want to avoid these DC crossovers, but I was actually looking forward to checking this out. Millennium has a pretty awful reputation, but I have fond memories of it for some reason.

Right off the bat, this is a lot weirder than Legends. Legends was botched in its execution, but at the concept level it had a respectable thesis and seemed to be trying to respond thematically* to the "important" super-hero comics of its era (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, The Squadron Supreme). Millennium, on a concept level, is much farther out: the Guardians - a race of super-powerful little nerdy men - and the Zamorans - a race of super-powerful Amazonian warrior women - have decided to use the energy created by them having lots of sex to propel humanity's evolution along . But the Guardians' former servants - the mutinous Manhunter androids - want to stop them.

The series' big gimmick, of course, is that the Manhunters have infiltrated the lives of all of Earth's heroes, so, like, we find out that Flash's father and Superman's girlfriend are really Manhunters in disguise. This element of the series really seemed to piss people off. Personally, I don't mind so much, especially since it turns out that Pan (you know, this Pan) is also a Manhunter. That, to me, encapsulates the way that the super-hero genre can thrive on mixing and melding incommensurate elements.

However, I can see why the seemingly drastic revelations might have turned off long time fans.

Joe Staton's work here is very nice: he can handle all the different characters and does a good job putting them in interesting poses for the big standinging-around-in-a-room-talking scenes.

*I.e., "swiped a number of plot point from"

Monday, October 20, 2008

Wolverine #66 by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

"Old Man Logan - Part One"

Inks: Dexter Vine
Colored by: Morry Hollowell

This is another comic Sean's Kick Ass review inspired me to pick up, in that I thought I should follow-up trying out a John Romita Jr. comic with trying out a Mark Millar comic. And I chose this particular Mark Millar for a couple of reasons:

1. I like the idea of reading a Road Warrior homage with Wolverine and other Marvel characters.

2. This story-arc looks like it stands apart from anything else going on in Marvel comics right now or what was going on in Wolverine prior to this.

3. I'm not usually a fan of Steve McNiven's work, but I flipped through the book I liked what I saw.

What struck me about the Slott/Romita Amazing Spider-Man issue that I read was that it seemed to me to be an example of the kind of book that various people on the internet claim doesn't exist: a straight-forward story about a major, franchise hero that builds on the character's core elements instead of on details drawn from the publisher's shared-world continuity.

This comic seems to be much closer to standard, contemporary super-hero fare. While the Slott/Romita Amazing Spider-Man should appeal to anyone who is interested in a Spider-Man story, this issue of Wolverine is aimed at people who have some knowledge of and/or investment in the Marvel U. A basic indicator of the difference: Wolverine doesn't show up in a costume and even his out-of-costume look here doesn't match up with his look in other comics or in the X-Men movies. A slightly less basic indicator: this story isn't building on Wolverine's "core elements", but instead is playing a "what if" game with those elements. Not only that, but there's a second layer to all of this: at this point, doing "future histories" of Wolverine has become a tradition in its own right. So Millar isn't just relying on our knowledge of the Marvel U: he's also playing around with references to other "what if" stories about Wolverine in the future.

The concept here is that we're in a 1980's-style post-apocalyptic future, where supervillains have beaten all the heroes and carved up the U.S.A. into their own kingdoms. Logan has given up being a hero, has a family, and is trying to eak out a living as a farmer, although it looks like some kind of ecological disaster has made that nearly impossible.

As I said back in reason #1, I like this idea. To drop the calm, collected voice I like to use here favor of the kind of AICN-style fanboy gushing I try to suppress: I think this idea is wicked cool. Wolverine is the perfect character to drop in the middle of Road Warrior pastiche.

A lot of the pleasure with this type of story has to do with seeing how my favorite characters are used.

Hawkeye shows up as an aging counter-culture-type (I kept thinking of Peter Fonda), who, though blind, still insists on driving his car himself. I like this take, even though it owes a lot to Frank Miller's Green Arrow from The Dark Knight Returns. Actually, in this instance, I like it partially because it is derivative.

As an observation, I think it's accurate to say that this is for relatively hardcore fans: people who already care about lots of little details and who will recognize all the layers of references. Given that, I think this is a nicely done super-hero comic and the story seems to have some potential.

Finally, a quick note on Steve McNiven's art:

One of the good things about the "what if" set-up here is that it frees McNiven from drawing a lot dudes-in-tights standing around talking, which is something that very few super-hero artists are able to pull off well. Instead, the concept frees him to do some effective sci-fi/action movie action. I especially like his redneck Hulks.

I should point out that from a sci-fi perspective there seem to be a lot of world building holes. I couldn't quite figure out how this post-apocalyptic economy is supposed to work (although I could say the same thing about our actual hopefully-extremely-pre-apocalyptic economy).

Bonus Question: do these kinds of "Imaginary Story"/Elseworlds-style stories have a name? They aren't completely unique to comics, but they are a pretty strange beast.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct by Paul Di Filippo and Jerry Ordway

Generally with these posts, my preference is (a) to try and figure out how these comics are put together and (b) to elaborate on how my own particular p.o.v. affects my capacity to do (a). I've been trying not to talk in terms of this-or-that "working" or "not working", because, IME, those kinds of judgments require making assumptions about how a given comic should work that makes it easier to miss out when a comic is working in a way that is new to me.

But comparing Paul Di Filippo's work on this series to Alan Moore's, what sticks out is not that Di Filippo's ideas aren't as good, necessarily, but that they're a lot more safe, like he knows he's playing with someone else's toys and doesn't want to break them. Or get too attached to them, for that matter: the way the characters are written makes them feel like actors going through the paces in a sequel they're just doing for the money.

So, Di Filippo has a Moore-like overarching A plot, a Morrison-like overarching B plot, and a number of TV cop show-like subplots, but they all feel pasted on. It ends up feeling like the whole thing is badly structured - with an ending that just sort of happens and a lot of scenes that don't seem to add up - but the problem is really that the plot just happens and it isn't grounded the characters or the setting.

And I really like Jerry Ordway's work - Power of Shazam was one of the few super-hero comics I consistently* bought on a monthly basis during the 1990s - but it's never rated very highly on the "sense of humor" scale. So here, while the background jokes are dutifully executed, they're not that funny. Ordway's take on the Top Ten universe is just too literal.

And the whole thing lacks the sense of wonder that made the original Top Ten work: even when it was poking fun at super-hero comics it understood the poetry and majesty of those crazy Jack Kirby images of spandex-clad gods.

*Most of the time in the 1990s I'd follow super-hero titles in bits and pieces and buy up a whole bunch of back issues if something ended up clicking. Ordway's Shazam and James Robinson's Starman were the ones I tried to follow month-in, month-out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Grant Morrison's Dr. Who #1

"Changes", the first story in this collection is a standard Doctor vs. monster story in two parts. It has nice art by John Ridgway that seems completely in line with (the relatively little I know of) the conventions of 1980s British sci-fi comics. Nothing makes it stick out as a "Grant Morrison" comic, although there is some clever dialogue that plays off the monster's shape shifting abilities.

The second story, "Culture Shock!", is a one-parter and, at first glance, seems more like filler. It also has a standard set-up: the Doctor shows up just in time to help some alien creatures in need. But Morrison's take on the creature and its plight - linking the microscopic to the cosmic by dissolving the conceptual barrier between them - is distinctively his own and anticipates some of the ideas that show up in Animal Man, JLA, and The Filth.

Bryan Hitch is the artist here and his work was the only thing that really surprised me in the entire comic. But that's only because I had forgotten that he used to be a real cartoonist. Hitch is very talented and I like a lot of the stuff he does, but while his current style seems to be pretty suited to an action-movie take on super-heroes - like The Ultimates - it feels out of place in a book like Fantastic Four that (at its best) has never been about "realism" of any sort. Dr. Who is definitely more on the Fantastic Four side of the spectrum, so it's nice to see a bit of "cartoony expressiveness" in his work.

From a completist's perspective, I'm glad that these stories are being collected. But even though I'm a reasonably big fan of both Dr. Who and Grant Morrison, I don't think anything here is essential reading. Neither story added anything new to the way I look at the Doctor or at Morrison's work.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Amazing Spider-Man #568 by Dan Slott and John Romita Jr.

"New Ways to Die - Book One"

Inks: Klaus Janson
Colors: Dean White

After reading Sean's review of Kick Ass I was reminded of (a) how much I like John Romita Jr. and (b) how little interest I've had in reading most of the books he's worked on in the last few years. But I saw this in the store yesterday and decided to give it a try. It helped that Dan Slott's name was on the cover, because his Spider Man/Human Torch series is my favorite (relatively) recent Spider-Man comic.

For anyone who can accept the existence of Spider-Man comics by people other than Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, this is a pretty good example of a well made Spider-Man comic. Nothing jaw-dropping from either Romita or Slott , but nicely handled all around. Romita's work is relaxed and assured and a little more stripped down than it was the last time he was on this book: he comes off like the genuine cartoonist he is.

I like the way Slott is weaving the workplace storyline - Peter leaving the Daily Bugle (now a tabloid called the DB) for Ben Urich's paper - together with the super-heroics - Norman Osborne bringing his team of super villains to NYC to hunt down Spidey.

Also important: it really does feel like a first chapter. I haven't read an issue of Amazing Spider-Man since sometime around the end of the J. Michael Straczynski run (when I jumped ship), but there was no head-scratching and I relieved that there was no smell of anything Secret Invasion-like.

I guess what's surprising is that I actually am surprised that this book is pretty good. Though it doesn't have as much personality as some of the more idiosyncratic second-or-third tier super-hero books, it's a worthy enough successor to the Amazing Spider-Man comics I grew up reading.

The problem, of course, is that this shouldn't be surprising. This is what the main Spider-Man comic should be like. I shouldn't be moved to blog about how cool is it that they got Dan Slott and John Romita Jr. to work on this comic because Dan Slott and John Romita Jr. are the guys who should be working on this comic. I shouldn't feel relieved that there's no tie-in here to some convoluted crossover event that will cost me hundreds of dollars to keep up with because children of all ages should feel safe that they can buy an issue of Amazing Spider-Man and get a pretty good Spider-Man story without having to worry about following the Super Skrull over to Captain Britain*.

I realize that this isn't an original complaint. And I also think that Todd's argument here (that stuff like Secret Invasion isn't supposed to work like an old-fashioned Spider-Man comic) is pretty interesting. But I'd recommend this comic to all the other people making this kind of complaint .

*A comic I would try out if it didn't have Secret Invasion on its cover.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Plastic Man Vol. 2: Rubber Bandits by Kyle Baker

The second volume of Kyle Baker's Plastic Man series isn't as consistent as the first. I got the sense from this interview that Baker was trying out different approaches to see if he could find some way to (a) connect with the existing super-hero comics-buying crowd and/or (b) find (perhaps create) an audience for his own kind of humor comic. And this experimentation shows in the book itself. Not that it ever feels like he's flailing around, but he doesn't always seem as comfortable with the material. For example, the two-part "Continuity Bandits" story feels forced in a way that the collection-ending Tom & Jerry tribute doesn't.

I think "Continuity Bandits" - in which Baker expresses his skepticism towards DC's going-on-30-years trend away from making super-hero comics for kids - falls into the same kind of in-between zone as those Nextwave comics I wrote about. It's like a MAD Magazine version of a DC comic, but the satire is blunted because it relies on a bunch of in-jokes. Like Nextwave, this seems to be pitched to people who read contemporary super-hero comics, but think most contemporary super-hero comics are kind of silly. I think this is a limited audience, which is not really a problem, but it's also a limited target. The best MAD Magazine parodies go beyond making jokes at the expense of the target and end up making more expansive cultural criticism. "Continuity Bandits" plays to its (imagined) audience, but that's all it plays to.

That said, Baker's cartooning is great throughout the book and he varies his technique and style on a story-by-story basis. "Continuity Bandits" really looks like classic MAD Magazine, while the Tom & Jerry story is done in a stripped down version of the animation storyboard style of On the Lam. That variety is part of what makes Baker's self-reflexive take on this character work so well: I could imagine him transforming the entire history of cartooning into a bunch of Plastic Man stories.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Selina's Big Score by Darwyn Cooke

There are lots of sequences made up of close-ups of faces in this book: sequences carried by little details changing from panel-to-panel - eyes shifting slightly, a poker face turning into a grin. It's a dangerous tack to take in a book like this - that is, a straightforward, almost classical action/adventure/crime story - and it takes a cartoonist as expressive as Cooke to pull it off. I think that Cooke's art is nice to look at, but it's his skill as a storyteller that makes him more than just a retro stylist.

What Cooke is trying to do here - weave Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman into a Donald E. Westlake a.k.a. Richard Stark-style heist story - isn't completely successful. Cooke lacks Westlake's black comic sense of humor, which, in the Parker novels, manifests as a brutal slapstick and a razor-sharp ironic p.o.v. towards all flavors of self-delusion. Cooke also doesn't have Westlake's flair for clockwork precise plotting. Without those things, its easy for that kind of story to turn into an overly romantic take on the independent, self-sufficient outlaw, which is more-or-less what happens here. "Less" only in that (a) we have two outlaws and (b) they turn out to be not as self-sufficient as they'd like to think they are.

Not surprisingly, it's part (b) that is one of the major themes of the Catwoman series proper, but Cooke isn't able to do much more than hint at it here.

So the pleasures to be had here are mostly in Cooke's cartooning: in the great "acting" of the close-up sequences and the staging of the elaborate heist scenes.

As a possible spiritual sequel to this book, I'd like to see Cooke draw a properBatman vs. Parker story from a Westlake script. (And if Westlake won't do it get Steven Grant or Mike Baron).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ultra: Seven Days by the Luna Brothers

I read this - the Luna Brothers' first series - right after I finished Girls - the Luna Brothers' second series. Looking at this as a warm-up to Girls - which I liked quite a bit and plan to write more on later - makes me want to cut it more slack than I would if it had been my introduction to the Luna Brothers' work. Nonetheless, this is an example of an extremely mediocre comic.

There are a lot of reasons a piece of popular culture might turn out to be mediocre. Sometimes, you get the medicority of competency: work made by professionals that aims to hit as precisely as possible the current, conventional standards of being "well made". Sometimes you get the mediocrity of unreachable ambitions, where a creator can't pull off what they're trying to do. Ultra is arguably more purely, purposefully mediocre than these two kinds of works. It isn't just that Ultra has a high-concept that seems safely different-but-not-too-different from standard super-hero fare. You could make the same claim about Powers. In fact, my guess is that Powers is the inspiration for what the Luna Brothers are doing here: doing a "super-hero world" version of a popular TV genre - police procedural in the case of Powers, primetime soap opera about beautiful, fabulous people in the case of Ultra. The problem is that while Brian Michael Bendis seems perfectly at home writing a police procedural, the Luna Brothers don't have that kind of grasp of the kind of chick lit-influenced soap opera they're attempting here. Because of this, while Powers feels like an attempt for Bendis to do the kind of thing he really loves - write crime stories - and still appeal to the super-hero crowd, Ultra feels calculated, as if the Luna Brothers were looking for a niche they could fill.

This is all speculation and supposition, of course, but for me it's the details that tell the story and in Ultra the details all feel second-hand, as if they were drawn from TV shows and not from life. There's a conversation between Ultra - a popular super-heroine - and a "normal" guy she's going out on a first date with that is indicative of the problem. The guy keeps talking about how weird and cool it is to be on a date with a super-hero and how he can't believe it. To me, that seems like it would be completely off-putting behavior, especially since it has been established that Ultra likes to draw aline between her day job and her private life. But the Luna Brothers seem to be deaf to these kinds of little inconsistencies, which add up over the course of the series.

Ideally, in a genre-mixing work like this, you want the genres to mix in interesting ways: where the conventions of one genre tell us something about the other or where the mixture provides some kind of satirical spark. But that doesn't happen here either. There's no commentary on super-hero comics and , despite the magazine parody covers, no commentary on celebrity culture.

But there are certainly worse ways to try and make a name for yourself, and considering what they would go on to do in Girls (which is neither middle-of-the-road nor impersonal) it isn't so terrible that this feels like such an exercise. Or, rather, reading Girls first I know that the exercise paid off.

This is true from a formal/craft sense perspective as well. A number of the techniques the Luna Brothers try out here - using a computer enhanced "out-of-focus" effect to mimic a rack focus with a camera - are used much more effectively (and discriminatingly) in Girls. And the stripped-down, bare-bones style of Jonathan Luna's cartooning is also a much better fit with the B-movie set-up and rural PA characters and location in Girls. With Ultra it seems a little skimpy.

Ultimately, I think the importance of Ultra and/or any interest in it will have to do with how it fits into our thinking about the Luna Brother's subsequent career and not for its intrinsic value.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Legends #5 and Legends #6

Writers: John Ostrander & Len Wein
Artists: John Byrne & Karl Kesel

I think there's something at least theoretically compelling about pitting Darkseid against the Phantom Stranger. Darkseid isn't just a bad guy: he's a philosopher-tyrant. The Stranger - an otherworldly, occult observer of mankind - should make a decent foil. But there's nothing actually compelling about the way they're used here, partly because there's a major disconnect between what they're saying is happening and the action itself.

So, the Phantom Stranger is telling us - I mean, telling Darkseid - that the heroes will win because the children believe in them (or some kind of garbage along those lines and, come to think of it, "because of the children" is a pretty out-of-character thing for the Phantom Stranger to say - even acknowledging that he doesn't have much character beyond "creepy occult guy" to begin with), but what we see is "the children" being used as a plot device/excuse.

(Oh yeah - Darkseid's plan turns out to have a huge hole in it: if your goal is to turn the people of Earth against its heroes then invading Earth with a super-powered army that only the heroes can defeat is not a good idea because it proves to the people of Earth exactly why they need their heroes.)

There's nothing wrong with these issues that isn't wrong with all of the previous ones: some decent top level thinking but fumbled execution. And, while I'm reluctant to place too much value on "goofiness", this series just doesn't even have that kind of spark to bring it to life. It reads like an assignment that none of the creators particularly wanted.

I started reading this as part of my ongoing attempt to work my way through the entire second volume of the Flash series and, I have to admit, these comics were the first time I really felt bogged down. Baron's work on Flash has its flaws and I think that he never really takes advantage of the benefits of continuity in the way that later writers will, but at least it's a consistent vision for the character and he supports this vision with lots of little details. Baron's Flash isn't as good as Baron's work on his own characters, but nothing about it feels like he doesn't care or didn't have time to get it right.

Quick comics reading auto-biographical note: picking up Legends must have been what got me into reading DC comics, because all of the DC comics I ended up following for any lentgh of time - Flash, Justice League, Suicide Squad - were Legends spin-offs.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Directed by Eric Wareheim

Steve Dillon seems like a pretty cool guy and he sure can draw...

Whenever I see one of the "If I was in NYC I'd go to..." entries on Tom Spurgeon's blog, I always feel a little guilty: all this great comics-related stuff right around me and I hardly ever take advantage of any of it.

Anyway, I knew that Steve Dillon was going to be signing at Jim Hanley's Universe yesterday (which is right around the corner from where I work), so, at the last minute, I decided to swing by and get his autograph. "Last minute" meant that I had to buy a back issue of Animal Man for him to sign (my complete run of that series is in my parents' attic and/or basement in Vermont and/or upstate New York).

This was the first time in years I've ever gone to get a signature from a comics artist. I think the last time was when I drove hours to get a Dave Sim autograph and sketch during his Spirits of Independence tour. I went to a San Diego convention between then and last night, but at that convention I think the only autograph I got was from Max Allan Collins and I had him sign one of his novels, so I'm not sure if that counts. And back when DK2 #1 came out, I stood in line at the Virgin Megastore on 14th St. with a friend while he waited for Frank Miller to sign his copy, but I didn't bring anything of my own to get signed (I think because I found out about it at the last minute and was generally pretty all-over-the-place at that point in my life).

The only reason I decided to go get Steve Dillon's autograph as opposed to, say, Kyle Baker's (which I could have gotten a few weeks ago when he was at Jim Hanley's) is nostalgia. Animal Man was one of my favorite comics and I have a particular affection for the Tom Veitch/Steve Dillon run, especially since it gets so much less love than Grant Morrison's (justly celebrated) work on the series.

Dillon became one of the first artists working in super-hero books whose style I could easily recognize and (more importantly) who I wanted to follow from book-to-book. I even bought and enjoyed the super-hero parody book How to Be a Super-Hero that Dillon illustrated.

I'm not sure why I was really into Steve Dillon's work when other kids my age were into Todd McFarlane.

And the "Welcome Back Frank" Punisher series was one of the two books that got me back into reading super-hero comics fairly regularly after a break of about four years. (The other one was Morrison's New X-Men - 'natch.)

So, yesterday work kind of sucked and I was in a bad mood and figured, "Hey - why not swing by Jim Hanley's and pick up an issue of that Wolverine comic that Steve Dillon is drawing and an Animal Man back issue that I wouldn't mind having a double of and get him to sign them."

Overall it was a good experience: not at all awkward as some of these social/commercial interactions can get. I got there pretty early on in the signing session, but wasn't really prepared for the line to move so slowly. That wasn't really a bad thing, though, because Dillon seemed to be taking his time with his sketches. ("Seemed" because I have nothing else really to compare it to: maybe 8 minutes a sketch is normal. I have no idea really.) He also seemed like he was pretty easy going and that he actually enjoyed meeting his fans and telling funny anecdotes.

I think I was one of the only people there who was really into Dillon's work on Animal Man which wasn't surprising. Maybe a little surprising: the Preacher fans seemed to really out-number the Punisher fans.

Anyway, I'm even looking forward to checking out the Wolverine comic I bought.

Oh yeah - I like what Mike Hunter says about Dillon on this TCJ thread:

He's one of those talents - John Severin comes to mind - who, though not flashy, are rock-solid, compensate in other worthy ways. In his art, violence is no graceful ballet; you can feel the bone splinter, gristle collapse. He can perfectly capture the easeful warmth of friends knocking back some suds in a pub, or an icy sneer of utter contempt, a snarl of feral hatred. He can render a believable schlep or stone-cold killer.