Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

29 September 2009

The Fate of the Artist

Collects: OGN

Released: April 2006 (First Second)

Format: 96 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781596431331

What is this?: Artist Eddie Campbell details the investigation of his own (fictional) disappearance.

The culprit: Eddie Campbell

I know nothing of artist Eddie Campbell, except that he collaborated with Alan Moore on From Hell. Campbell’s The Fate of the Artist is an “autographical novel” told in many different artistic styles. So many styles, with a thin but baffling plot, that frankly, I don’t know what to make of it.

Fate is nominally about Campbell’s disappearance, narrated by the police officer who investigates. So there’s a lot of interviews with the family, although few of them are straightforward. The daughter is interviewed with crude speech balloons above photos of her. Some of the story is told through comic strips — interactions between Campbell and his wife are in the marital comic “Honeybee,” with other stories told through strips such as “Angry Cook,” “Theatricals,” and “Our Problem Child.” And some of the reminiscences about Campbell are told through straightforward, nine-panel-to-the-page, watercolored comics. When Campbell appears in these, the narration notes Campbell will be played by Richard Siegrist, a fictional actor.

Fate of the Artist coverSo, first of all: do not expect anything of the plot. Anything. It’s extremely thin, has no real payoff, and is used as a frame for Campbell to talk about what he wants. It’s discarded when it’s convenient. I can’t see why Campbell used his fictional disappearance in an autobiography. He’s obviously talking about things that are very important to him, and the frame only distracts. It’s obviously a metaphor, but a metaphor that doesn’t work in the story is merely a big, distracting sign screaming “Look at me!” into your ear.

So, ignore that. Fate is made up of short vignettes, reminiscences of Campbell’s family life, told through his wife, his daughter, and the comic strips. They are melancholy tales, with rarely a happy story among them. Campbell seems obsessed with the ideas of roles — his part is played by Siegrist, the comic strip gives everyone defined comic roles, his observations of the “state of modern marriage.” Campbell’s art tries to break free of those roles in their startling variety, mostly well chosen for their roles. (His daughter in photos is an especially good choice; the comic strip “Honeybee,” which reduces marriage to stereotypical roles and punchlines is another.)

The storytelling is similarly scattershot but isn’t quite as effective. The second part of Fate begins delving into historical characters, real or fictional. Campbell uses this to explore the role viewers play in art: the critics, the audience, contemporaries. He goes from a short essay on reconstructions of lost classical structures to a direct speech on the matter to his own imaginary historical friends, which his daughter calls “a lot of good listeners.” These digressions allow Campbell to make the points he wants to, but it disturbs the book’s narrative (such as it is) and is a bit less artful in saying its piece than the rest of the book.

Which is a shame, because the final section, in which Campbell adapts O. Henry’s “Confessions of a Humorist,” is very well done and much more to the point than anything in the rest of Fate. In the adaptation, in which “the leading role is played by Mr. Eddie Campbell,” Henry and Campbell tell of a humor writer who becomes successful by mining every interaction for nuggets of wit and interest. He becomes despised and unhappy; when he chucks that career to buy into a funeral home, he becomes happy again. The sincerity of “Confessions” bleeds into the pages like the watercolors, and I get the feeling this is more true to Campbell than anything else in Fate, despite it being written about a century ago by another person.

I also have a feeling the people who will like this the most are the ones who have the greatest familiarity with Campbell’s work. Having read none of his work, I was baffled occasionally and disinterested at other times. There is a serious discussion of art and the artist here, but the disconnect between the surface and the symbol are too stark for me to engage with either the discussion or Campbell’s semi-humorous life. (Or this representation of his life.)

Rating: First Second symbol First Second symbol (2 of 5)

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26 September 2009

Wonder Woman: The Ends of the Earth

Collects: Wonder Woman #20-5 (2008)

Released: March 2009 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $24.99 (hardcover) / ISBN: 9781401221362

What is this?: A man with no soul sends Wonder Woman on a quest against a great evil, along with Beowulf.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and pencilers Aaron Lopresti and Bernard Chang

And to end Gail Simone Week, we have Wonder Woman: The Ends of the Earth. This is Simone’s second volume as writer of Wonder Woman (although again, it’s not like DC will tell anyone, omitting volume numbers).

Issues #20-3 make up the eponymous story, in which a nameless man with no soul forces Wonder Woman to gather Beowulf and a barbarian to fight the demon who has taken his soul. It’s a straightforward story, although Simone manages to get a few twists in. However, the major drama in “Ends of the Earth” seems to be whether Wonder Woman will lose touch with mercy and / or kill someone. Although that is threatened, it’s something that doesn’t seem very likely … Wonder Woman’s death seems more likely, since you can come back from death but not from being a murderer.

Wonder Woman: The Ends of the Earth cover On the other hand, Wonder Woman has murdered a man, and the demon torments her with the knowledge. Wonder Woman did it for a greater good, but … the mercy / murder dichotomy seems to be part of Simone’s grand unifying plan for Wonder Woman, the idea that assimilates (or tosses aside) all the piecemeal characterizations Wonder Woman has had and finally gives her a proper concept. It doesn’t quite work here, I think; the opponent feels generic, and the threat doesn’t have enough dramatic heft to make Simone’s concept stand out.

The final two issues have two stories: Nemesis meeting with Wonder Woman’s mother, Hippolyta, for half an issue, and the rest with Wonder Woman on the set of the Wonder Woman movie, which has been hijacked by a villainess. Both of these B stories are better than the main tale. Hippolyta and Wonder Woman put the bewildered Nemesis through hell, tormenting him both as a test and because they can, and it is, at times, hilarious, although it is over the top. The Wonder Woman movie is amusing as it goes through all the bad ideas that have been thrown at the Wonder Woman character over the years and forces the character to face them. She is rightly embarrassed and wishes they would go away. The villainess is forgettable, but Diana’s superintelligent ape advisors amuse me greatly. I’m not sure I’d want their help on contract negotiations, as they’re too distracted by offers of fresh fruit, but I’m sure they’d be a benefit if discussions got too sticky.

The Ends of the Earth features a couple of strong artists. As I mentioned in my review of Wonder Woman: The Circle, I like the work of penciler Bernard Chang, who drew the final two issues. His Wonder Woman stands out as a warrior and not a pinup. Aaron Lopresti penciled “Ends of the Earth” and did a very good job, although his work is a little too generic — or perhaps Dodson-like — to truly stand out. Still, I have no quibbles about the art itself.

This one’s out only in hardback, which I’m a little disappointed in; the paperback is due out next March, according to Amazon. (Obviously, solicitations aren’t announced that far ahead of time.) DC often waits a year before putting out paperback version of hardbacks. I don’t like that, but it’s their company. On the other hand, this is my review, and I can’t recommend buying this in hardback. If you’re a Wonder Woman or Simone fan, by all means, get the paperback — but $25 is too much for this.

Rating: Wonder Woman symbol Wonder Woman symbol (2 of 5)

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23 September 2009

Birds of Prey, v. 3: Between Dark & Dawn

Collects: Birds of Prey #69-75 (2004)

Released: February 2006 (DC)

Format: 176 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401209407

What is this?: Huntress infiltrates a cult while Oracle battles the enemy within; then, the Birds clear up loose ends before leaving Gotham.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and pencilers Ed Benes, Ron Adrian, Jim Fern, Eduardo Barretto, and Eric Battle

Gail Simone Week begins with Birds of Prey, v. 3: Between Dark & Dawn, the third volume (even if DC is loathe to admit it) of the Gail Simone-written run on the title.

I’ve reviewed the first and second volumes of the series, but this is the first one that has disappointed me. The main plot, which takes place in issues #69-73, has Huntress investigating a cult that revolves around superheroes and Oracle dealing with what appears to be a cybervirus. (There’s also an amusing sideplot about Oracle giving Savant a job to prove himself worthy, but that one pays off in #74.)

Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn coverNeither of the plots worked. Despite having fun dialogue and the characters readers have come to enjoy, this was too by-the-numbers. First, showing a character interfacing between “cyberspace” and the real world is always a dicey proposition, and even though the explanation for Oracle’s infection makes sense, it still doesn’t feel right. It starts out interesting — Oracle seeing patterns in an unplugged screen is suitably creepy — but the more it becomes concrete, the less interesting it is, the less possible madness is for an explanation and the more it becomes a standard fight that Oracle shouldn’t win. She does win, of course, through the most hackneyed way possible: beating the logical machine with emotion.

I have only one word for the hybrid of Oracle and the infection: no. Silver skin with thick electrical cables for dreadlocks does not work as a look.

I also have my troubles with Huntress and the cult. Simone has fun with Huntress, making her sharp witted and sharp tongued. But I’m not quite sure Simone pulls off the idea of a cult leader with mind control (unoriginal) and faith in superheroes. That the mind control works only on those with faith doesn’t help; instead, it only muddies matters, throwing another element into a story that might have needed something different to help it along but didn’t need what feels like tacked-on mutterings about belief.

The final two issues are excellent and raise the book out of the doldrums. Issue #74 has a few different elements, but most of them are amusing, and even though it’s an overall mishmash, it is wrapping up some dangling plots. Issue #75 blows up Oracle’s base with no warning of plot development — it’s a fait accompli when the issue begins, so I don’t feel bad about spoiling it — but it takes off from there, with the Birds of Prey running one last mission before leaving Gotham. The issue also introduces Lady Blackhawk to the Birds with a bittersweet story of a timelost character — it’s not a new idea, but on the other hand, her gender and feelings of discrimination make her a unique fit for Birds.

If you’ve read my reviews of the other Simone Birds, you know my feelings about Ed Benes’s art: overemphasis on cheesecake, but other than that, a good artist. I particularly like his work on the Lady Blackhawk story (if that’s who it was; DC doesn’t provide credits on individual issues). On the other hand, dreadlock cyberOracle was his fault, and he makes Black Canary wear a flyaway frilled blouse to the hospital; it’s aggressively ugly. Some artist also thinks bait for fishing looks like hotdogs, but I believe that’s Ron Adrian who drew #69. Adrian does an admirable job of fitting in with Benes’s work. Adrian and Eric Battle pencil #73, and Jim Fern contributes #74; I imagine Eduardo Barretto does #75, but I have no proof. None of these artists really stand out, except for Adrian.

Although this is below average for Simone, I think this is just a bump in the Birds of Prey road. I’ll keep reading along — and I’m excited, because in only two more volumes, there will be a new artist.

Rating: DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (2.5 of 5)

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19 September 2009

Sin City, v. 1: The Hard Goodbye

Collects: Stories from Dark Horse Presents: Fifth Anniversary Special and Dark Horse Presents #51-62 (1991-2)

Released: 1992 (Dark Horse)

Format: 208 pages / black and white / $17 / ISBN: 9781593072933

What is this?: A mentally ill thug named Marv is framed for murdering a prostitute, causing him to launch a one-man war on Sin City’s power structure.

The culprit: Frank Miller

Last Friday, it was the newest non-superhero comic to be made into a movie. This Friday, it’s one of the best.

Frank Miller wrote and drew Sin City, v. 1: The Hard Goodbye as a feature in an anthology title for Dark Horse Comics. It is an ultraviolent noir tale, as Marv — a thug who gets confused without his meds — is framed for murdering Goldie, a prostitute who gave herself to him in return for his protection. Ashamed for failing Goldie, Marv investigates the murder, and not just because Basin City’s corrupt police force is trying to tie the murder on him.

Sin City, v. 1: The Hard Goodbye coverMiller works hard to construct a noir world, from the title to the charaters and setting down to the black-and-white art. It’s not a setting constructed on Phillip Marlowe’s LA or Sam Spade’s San Francisco or even Mike Hammer’s New York, although it’s easy to see Hammer could get to enjoy Sin City. The Hard Goodbye goes well past Hammer’s gleeful gunplay and dead women, crafting something so violent it’s almost superhuman. In the movie, this was morphed into a sort of a noir fu, a martial art that relies not the purity of heart or the wisdom to learn but instead hinges on a person’s rage and corruption. The comic book is like that — Marv and his chief antagonist Kevin are bizarre aberrations, their ability to take and deal out pain inhuman in scope. Miller integrates them into a world that is mostly recognizable without a great deal of trouble, but Marv knows the truth: they’re freaks.

There is a legitimate complaint to be made about Miller’s depiction of women in the book: they’re all hookers or strippers. Other than Marv’s mother, the lone exception, Marv’s parole officer, makes her first appearance nude. The noir genre has a long tradition of ladies who make their living on the wrong side of the law, and there have been more than a few hookers among those. A charitable reader might make the point that Miller is being satirical, making Sin City so hyper-noir that every woman has been “corrupted” in some way. Or perhaps make the same point that Marv makes: what kind of woman would be seen around an unstable, ugly brute like him? Still, I feel uneasy about the undercurrent of misogyny, despite Miller’s attempts to empower the hookers by giving them their own section of the city where they rule. At any one point his depiction of women can be accepted as true. As an overall theme, it’s distracting at best and unappealing at worst.

I admit, the narrative is straight and to the point, not leaving a lot of room for extraneous characters. That’s one of The Hard Goodbye’s strengths, coming from its original publication in anthology comics. It’s impressive, given how effectively Miller builds the feel of Sin City and how well he constructs his psychopath with a heart of gold, Marv.

Miller’s art is a big help with that. The story is told in stark black and white, with completely dark silhouettes and no room for shades of gray. There’s not much subtlety to Miller’s work, but that’s not unintentional: the entire story’s about as subtle as a bullet to the head, and the art follows the story’s leads. Despite the lack of color, you can almost see the trail of blood Marv leaves behind. You can almost smell the corruption and feel the rain. This book is visceral all around, and it’s hard to imagine another artist who could pull it off — or at least pull it off with Miller.

The Hard Goodbye is as brutal as its protagonist, although there’s a great deal more sophistication. Despite some uncomfortable undercurrents, this book is still a hell of a read.

Rating: Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Half a Dark Horse symbol (4.5 of 5)

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15 September 2009

Whiteout (movie)

Last week I reviewed the trade paperback of Whiteout, and I found it artistically interesting, although the story was a little weak: the mystery was not that complex, and the protagonist was not developed as fully as she could be because of the attention given to a supporting character. Still, it was a decent book, worthy of your time if you wanted something not from the Big Two comic companies or not superheroes.

Whiteout posterI’m happy to say the movie version of Whiteout is better than the book. It sticks with the same formula: scientists murdered in the Antarctic, with a U.S. marshal investigating. Stetko, the marshal, is more fully rounded than in the comic version, and the investigation takes one or two more side treks than its inspiration. The movie made Antarctica more menacing than the comic as well; every time the protagonists left base, it was certain that something awful would happen to them. The cold bled through the screen into the theater, although the air conditioning at my theater might have had something to do with that.

Whiteout has received negative reviews, mostly because critics felt the mystery wasn’t all that strong (I can’t blame them) or the thriller aspects were weak (which I disagree with). Still, the final fight scene is not all that exciting, despite it being a duel with pistols and icepicks in a blizzard. The fighters have to be attached to a rope (they can’t see where they’re going, so the rope is the only way they can find their way from one building to another), but the ropes aren’t threatened enough, and it was difficult to tell the combatants from each other. Plus, you know, it’s supposed to be whiteout conditions. Part of me wished they had the guts to put up a pure white screen with a soundtrack.

But what really concerns me — what always concerns me about comic book movies — is how it differentiates from the source material. Now you get to know too:

Carrie Stetko: In the comic: Stetko is a widow exiled to Antarctica by the U.S. Marshal’s Service after she snapped the neck of an escaped prisoner who had surrendered. She takes no guff from anyone, and she probably is the most intimidating person in Antarctica.
Also: Stetko is short, freckled, and looks a little dumpy in her winter gear.

In the movie: Stetko is a U.S. marshal who takes a post in Antarctica after her partner sold her out. He let a prisoner free to kill her, but she subdued the prisoner and killed her partner when he tried to shoot her. She’s more diplomatic than the comic version, and even though she has a gun when she first encounters the killer, she runs like a frightened girl into the cold instead of fighting back.
Also: Kate Beckinsale never looks dumpy, not even in heavy winter gear.

Stetko’s boss: In the comic: Brett McEwan, who’s always insulting and putting pressure on Stetko to not screw up this case.

In the movie: Who knows? Stetko’s autonomous, baby.

The McGuffin In the comic: Gold, found by researchers taking random mineral samples.

In the movie: Diamonds found by the Russians in Antarctica but lost when the plane carrying them crashed after the pilots got greedy and tried to steal them. See? Foreigners can’t be trusted!

The secret agent: In the comic: Lily Sharpe, a British secret agent who’s even more hard-nosed than Stetko and a good deal taller.

In the movie: U.N. “operative” Robert Pryce, who knows more about the situation than Stetko at the beginning, but he works for the U.N., so eventually she walks all over him. I think it’s clear the moviemakers didn’t want to burden American audiences’ minds with the thought that Antarctica is open to all nations; they took everyone foreign (except the pilot, Haden) and converted them into Americans. You might argue the U.N. adds a multinational tinge to things, but it’s the U.N.: all good Americans know they’re toothless and useless.
Pryce is played by Gabriel Macht; you may remember Macht from the title role in the horrible The Spirit. He looks nothing like that in Whiteout, thank God. I need no reminders of that movie ever.

The conspiring scientists: In the comic: Five men from four different countries.

In the movie: Three Americans. Because American audience don’t want no damn foreign science.

Doc: In the comic: Bald, fat, bearded, and named “Furry.”

In the movie: Bearded, played by Tom Skerritt, and named “Fury.” Since he’s American already, he doesn’t need to be changed.

Delfy: In the comic: An old hand at flying in Antarctica, Delfy is an African-American and Stetko’s most trusted pilot.

In the movie: A young Iraq veteran in his first year flying in Antarctica. He’s still African-American, though.

Haden: In the comic: An Australian pilot introduced about halfway through to be suspicious.

In the movie: An Australian pilot introduced cleverly at the beginning of the film to look like a background character.

Guns: In the comic: According to Stetko, firearms are outlawed by treaty in Antarctica, although Sharpe carries one around. Guns can be expected to malfunction after short exposure to the extreme cold.

In the movie: Stetko always carries her pistol with her. The guns never fail, as rarely as they are used.

The eponymous whiteout: In the comic: During Stetko’s accident, which happens at the end of issue #1 and beginning of #2.

In the movie: Climactic final fight scene!

The fingers: In the comic: Gone.

In the movie: Gone, although a long time passes between exposure and revelation. We see the character deal with the loss as well, although if only he / she had kept his / her gloves on …

The weather: In the comic: Other the single whiteout and the cold, not really a factor.

In the movie: A huge storm is about to hit the base, causing an early winter evacuation (and a deadline to solve the mystery).

The bases: In the comic: Amundson-Scott (U.S., at the South Pole), McMurdo (U.S.), and Victoria (U.K.)

In the movie: Amundson-Scott and the deserted Vostok (Russian). I repeat: None of that damn foreign science. It’ll give you the socialism. Listening to Russian music in a deserted Russian station is bad enough.

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12 September 2009

Whiteout (TPB)

Collects: Whiteout #1-4 (1998)

Released: 2001 (Oni Press)

Format: 128 pages / black and white / $11.95 / ISBN: 9780966712711

What is this?: Carrie Stetko, a U.S. marshal in Antarctica, investigates a murder.

The culprits: Writer Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber

Since I was planning to see the movie Whiteout this weekend, I thought I would be timely for once and review the original trade paperback.

Whiteout came out in 1998, before writer Greg Rucka became a big-name comics writer (he was a novelist at this point) or artist Steve Lieber became a regular contributor at DC. It was an unusual mystery series from a small publisher in Oregon. I have no idea why I picked it up; it was certainly the first non-Marvel / DC TPB I’d ever bought, or even read. But it was good enough it led me down the road to Rucka’s novels, to my regret.

Whiteout is set in Antarctica, where Carrie Stetko, a disgraced U.S. marshal, has to investigate a murder, a man found murdered out on the ice where a camp has just vanished. In her investigations, the bodies start piling up, the cold takes its toll, and she runs into a Brtish secret agent.

Whiteout coverAs a mystery, I’m not sure what to make Whiteout. Stetko is one of those investigators who bull their way though the investigation, leaving a wide swath of destruction behind them and the shockwave of their movement creating a smaller blast in front of them. This is common for mysteries, although it makes more sense in stories when the suspect pool is larger. Using Antarctica for a setting leaves Whiteout with a limited pool of suspects, and one would think a more subtle approach might be better suited for the story. But perhaps that’s just my stylistic choice.

Rucka spends a lot of time on Stetko as a character and on Lily Sharpe, a British secret agent who spends most of her time in Antarctica contravening treaties. The mystery isn’t overly complex — although it does have an unexpected twist or two — so Stetko’s personal journey has to be strong to deliver a gripping story. Stetko is an interesting character, but the presence of Sharpe pulls the emphasis away from Stetko. Time with Sharpe could be used instead to develop Stetko and tie together her life before the ice with her investigation, and I never really felt the two parts of her story meshed. Her life before got her sent to Antarctica, but it doesn’t lead her to see revenge or redemption or anything. It’s simply a backstory. Sharpe doesn’t ever advance beyond irritating sidekick.

When I originally read Whiteout, those twists pulled me in and made me interested in Rucka’s other work. In retrospect, I should have known better about Rucka’s novels. Hell, I even read his “Queen and Country” novel, A Gentleman’s Game.

Lieber is outstanding in Whiteout; on my second reading, his art is clearly the best thing about the book. He works in black and white, a choice I don’t think was his, but it’s perfect for a mystery set in Antarctica and it’s perfect for Lieber. His realistic style is a great fit for the story Rucka tells, and his realism doesn’t allow for a “perfect” Carrie Stetko. Stetko is more real for her physical imperfections, and they work better for such an imperfect character than the plastic, idealized women in many other comics. He has a great eye for detail, and his Antarctica feels cold. Whiteout might be more effective than an air conditioner on a hot summer day, really.

So overall it’s worth looking at, although it isn’t the absorbing story I remember from almost a decade ago. Next week, I’ll look at the movie and compare it to the TPB.

Rating: Oni symbol Oni symbol Oni symbol (3 of 5)

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09 September 2009

If This Not Be Bromance —

Marvel Super Hero Team-Up coverI am both relieved and disappointed to see that the TPB Marvel had solicited as Marvel Bromance has been released this week as Marvel Super Hero Team-Up.

Relieved, because Good Lord, Marvel Bromance was an awful name, and “Bromance” is a word that is helpful only because it identifies its users as socially deficient numbskulls. (I suppose it can be used ironically, although I’m not sure that’s any better.)

Disappointed, because, well, “Marvel Bromance” would be worth a laugh for years, and now there’s nothing to distinguish this collection. Hey — it’s a random bunch of team-ups! Of course, I could have bought Essential Marvel Team-Up, v. 3, and then I would have had a consecutive run of random team-ups instead.

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08 September 2009

Tales Designed to Thrizzle, v. 1

Collects: Tales Designed to Thrizzle #1-4 (2005-8)

Released: July 2009 (Fantagraphics)

Format: 160 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781606991640

What is this?: Absurdist madness designed to look like comic magazines of days gone by

The culprit: Michael Kupperman

I heard about Tales Designed to Thrizzle on the podcast House to Astonish. The two hosts tried to describe writer / artist Michael Kupperman’s humor. It was difficult for the hosts to describe why Tales Designed to Thrizzle #5 was so funny, but they were convinced it was hilarious.

I’m having trouble too describing the humor as well. But it’s extremely funny; you can be assured of that.

The first four issues are collected in Tales Designed to Thrizzle, v. 1, the first Fantagraphics book I’ve reviewed. The book is made up of one-page jokes, with the occasional feature that runs on for a few pages. Running jokes include Cousin Grandpa, Mark Twain and Albert Einstein as ‘70s cops, and Snake ‘n’ Bacon, a crime fighting / time traveling team consisting of a snake who can only hiss and a slice of bacon that says bacon-related things such as “Crumble me in a salad” or “Wipe me with a paper towel to remove excess grease,” neither of which actually fits into the story.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle coverReally, that gives you an idea of the type of humor right there.

The jokes are presented to look like a Silver or Golden Age comic book, with plenty of fake ads that are designed to fill space along the margins. The art apes the style of the ‘40s through the ‘60s, although when appropriate, Kupperman shows he can draw in a more modern style as well. The content is absurd, although not in the Silver Age way — these are knowing absurdities, presented with a wink at the reader and often with a few obscenities mixed in. It’s hard to say why these jokes are funny, other than to point out their outlandish and outrageous nature.

But they are often hilarious: a feature on pornographic coloring books, Prohibition-era sex blimps and sex holes, the world’s worst choose-your-own-adventure story, and the story of Pagus, Jesus’s evil half-brother. The final Twain and Einstein story has ads that look like the junk advertised in ‘70s comics with a humorous twist: a “How to Avoid Being Dominated by Others” ad delivered in a bullying voice, “Learn to Pick Pockets for Fun and Profit,” “Learn How to Dance” (cowboys will shoot at your feet), and a floor safe that looks and smells like a pile of feces.

No, none of it makes any sense. But that’s part of the charm. It’s certainly unpredictable.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle doesn’t come out that often — by my estimates, an issue is released about once per year — so it may be a while before another collection comes out. But I’ll be waiting — well, probably I’ll try to pick up the individual issues, because no one’s that patient. But I’ll buy the collection when it comes out too.

Rating: Pagus, half brother of Jesus Pagus, half brother of Jesus Pagus, half brother of Jesus Pagus, half brother of Jesus Half Pagus! (4.5 of 5)

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07 September 2009

Marvelman — Does Everything a Marvel Can (provided Alan Moore lets him)

i09 reports an interview with writer Alan Moore by has revealed that yes, Marvel will be reprinting his (and Neil Gaiman’s) famed runs on Marvelman (or Miracleman, if Marvel prefers). Moore has asked that his name be removed from the work, but he will be giving his share of the reprint money to Marvelman creator Mick Anglo. Marvel announced at San Diego ComicCon that it bought the Marvelman rights. io9 also notes that Moore hinted that Gaiman might complete his final Marvelman story, cut short by its publisher’s bankruptcy.

These stories are legendary, partially because they’ve been so hard to get. Rights issues have prevented them from being reprinted, and that’s helped drive up the prices of the original back issues. Now that Marvel is on its way to getting the stories back into publication, you can be sure of three things:

  1. Sales will be high. This could get Marvel to the top of the New York Times Graphic Novel Bestseller list.
  2. Readers will pay for these things. Marvel charges out the wazz for stuff readers are mildly interested in; for Marvelman, Marvel might even double their going rates. (Probably not, but I can see it happening. They did have to pay for the rights, after all.)
  3. Two years after Marvel first gets Marvelman onto the stands, we will be drowning in formats. Premiere hardcovers. Trade paperbacks. Omnibuses. Hell, maybe even digests of the things.

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04 September 2009

Hellboy, v. 6: Strange Places

Collects: Hellboy: The Third Wish #1-2 and Hellboy: The Island #1-2 (2002, 2005)

Released: April 2006 (Dark Horse)

Format: 128 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593074753

What is this?: Hellboy under the sea! Hellboy, fighting on the beaches!

The culprit: Mike Mignola

To conclude Hellboy Week, we have Hellboy, v. 6 : Strange Places. This is an odd one; the two miniseries that make up this volume were published three years apart, separated by writer / artist / creator Mike Mignola’s work on the first Hellboy movie and other projects.

In 2002’s “The Third Wish,” Hellboy goes to Africa, as promised in Conqueror Worm. He spends very little time there, as he’s almost immediately dropped under the sea. There he doesn’t find singing lobsters or flounders, but he is immediately attacked by three malevolent mermaids who capture him for a sea hag called the Bog Roosh. The Bog Roosh, fearing his destiny is to end the world, plans to dismember him and stop that destiny. In 2005’s “The Island,” he fights a giant worm and listens to exposition. (The latter is less exciting than you’d think.)

Hellboy, v. 6: Strange Places coverBoth “The Third Wish” and “The Island” focus heavily on Hellboy’s destiny. I don’t know if most readers will think thats as boring as I did, but I found it didn’t make for a compelling story. Hellboy seems aimless, tossed from one point on the globe to another, with people yelling at him that he will end the world. Hellboy is baffled, then punches people, and the story ends. It’s less than satisfying. Hellboy doesn’t seem to defy or deny his alleged destiny so much as he reflexively punches those who believe in it.

As with Conqueror Worm, Mignola features ghosts or spirits of those killed long ago. In both stories, the dead rise and bring a sense of justice to the story — old crimes redressed in “The Island,” the innocent getting a little comfort in “The Third Wish.” Hellboy has little to do with the moral compass of either story. He’s just … again, he punches and stabs creatures and gets punched and stabbed. He doesn’t even get much in the way of witty dialogue.

That puts the burden of the story on the villains and other characters. The Bog Roosh has one plan and needlessly delays long enough for Hellboy to foil it. In “The Island,” the antagonists are a giant worm and a long-dead heretic who knows the true history of the world. And of course, we get to hear the history of the world and the heretic’s history; neither is interesting. Do I care about the creation story for the entity who will use Hellboy’s hand to destroy the world? No, because he’s a dragon who will destroy the world. That’s all I need to know. Do I care about the heretic’s story or why the Inquisition killed him? No, he’s not interesting either. I do care how the inquisitors were reanimated to torment him, but Mignola doesn’t explain that.

So there aren’t any interesting characters in “The Island” except Hellboy, who doesn’t do a hell of a lot. This is a problem. But man, can Hellboy take the abuse!

The lackluster stories make me want to give a stern lecture to Mignola the writer because he’s wasting the work of Mignola the artist. Mignola notes he mainly wanted to draw rocks and monsters when penciling the story that inspired “The Third Wish.” Those still are Mignola’s strengths, and fortunately, there are a lot of them in both stories. Mignola’s atmospherics are superb, and one scene — one with ghost sailors drinking on a derelict ship in “The Island” — makes me feel the conviviality of the ghosts and the desolation of the true setting. The book also includes the original first eight pages of “The Island,” originally a much different story. There’s no lettering, but those pages are the best part of the book; I’d dearly like to see Mignola finish the story, perhaps by stepping away from Hellboy’s mythology for a few pages.

This book also has a “Now a major motion picture: Hellboy II” sticker on it. I cannot think of a more deceptive way to advertise this book.

Unless you’re incredibly interested in Hellboy’s mythology, the reason to get this book is to look at Mignola’s monsters. I am not enough of a fan of anyone’s art to buy a book for that reason, but it’s worth reading — or least thumbing through — for Mignola’s art.

Rating: BPRD symbol Half a BPRD symbol (1.5 of 5)

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01 September 2009

Hellboy, v. 5: Conqueror Worm

Collects: Hellboy: Conqueror Worm #1-4 (2001)

Released: February 2004 (Dark Horse)

Format: 168 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593070922

What is this?: Hellboy vs. Nazis and space worms in Austria, with a little help from a homunculus and pulp hero Lobster Johnson.

The culprit: Mike Mignola

I’m starting Hellboy week with Hellboy, v. 5: Conqueror Worm. Why v. 5? Because I’ve already read the first four and found them excellent. I’ve read v. 5 before too, although I didn’t care for it much.

So I decided to look at it again, especially now that Hellboy is a multimedia hit. (The copy of Conqueror Worm I read told me so: it had a bright yellow sticker with “Now a major motion picture Hellboy II: The Golden Army” on it. The sticker goes very well with the muted reds, browns, and blacks on the cover.) I liked more this time, but the feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the execution lingered.

Hellboy, v. 5: Conqueror Worm coverFirst, let me say what is unquestionably right: Hellboy drawn by creator / writer / artist Mike Mignola. Nothing looks quite like it, even if everyone’s feet are weird. It’s brooding, dark, and exists so a huge, bright red guy can smash through it. The castle in which the story is set is looming, always about to fall apart but always standing as well; the setting is oppressive and evil without being over the top. Mignola is an outstanding visual storyteller with an excellent sense of design.

There is a strong idea for the main plot: Hellboy has to stop a worm from space, which has been drawn to earth by Nazi superscience, from devouring humanity. There’s a supporting idea, which involves Roger the Homunculus, his burgeoning humanity, and Hellboy’s beliefs. But there’s stuff around the edges that aren’t weird enough to be gripping or strong enough to be interesting. Ghost Nazis and American soldiers? Lobster Johnson? I understand Mignola loves the pulp heroes, but I don’t care about Lobster, nor do I feel his inherent (although latent, for me) awesomeness. The ghosts make thematic sense, given that Hellboy is metaphorically refighting a battle that was fought between the Americans and Nazis, instigated by the long-dead Nazi ideology. But plain ghosts are a jejune, and they don’t get enough play to be more than a momentary flash on the screen.

Which is a shame, because those loose ends divert the focus from the real weirdness. Torture, transformation into inhuman beasts, Nazi science, the nihilistic conclusion of Nazi beliefs, a scientist’s head in jars (I’m a sucker from brains / heads in jars), War Apes. … That’s the interesting stuff. The Nazis are seen as a cartoonish evil these days, but the chanting of the dead and changed Nazis after the Conqueror Worm returns to Earth is creepy in a way I rarely see in books. Mignola also gives the story an emotional element to the story in the form of Roger’s fight for his life and his humanity. Mignola even manages to make the readers feel (briefly) sorry for a Neo-Nazi.

This is a story that is very wrapped up in continuity. Rasputin and Hecate battle at the end after Rasputin wanders through an edge of the story; an alien who had met Hellboy a couple of times before pops into another chapter. It seems random, despite Mignola’s attempt to make these cameos seem less so by tying them into continuity. There are plenty of footnotes also, and although it gave me the feeling I was missing something (having never read the original comics), it did give me the feeling that the story was part of something larger, of a large tale worth reading. As a long-time Marvel fan, I can respect that. It would have been useful to have changed the footnotes to reflect where the stories referenced fall in the collected editions or give a timeline (or summary) on these tie-ins.

There is a sketchbook in the back as well. I would have preferred to have had the covers from the original miniseries instead, but we take what we can get from our publisher overlords. Original design sketches are not going to do much for me unless there are radically different designs or interesting commentary; there aren’t here.

I think my original impression was correct. This is a good story improved by Mignola’s art. But the unimportant details, the odd bits of continuity make Conqueror Worm seem less enjoyable than it should be, nibbling away at the fringes of the story until it looks moth eaten and shabbier than it really is. These niggling bits have a greater effect on the story than they should. Still, their effect is very real.

Rating: BPRD symbol BPRD symbol Half a BPRD symbol (2.5 of 5)

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