Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chew - now this is good stuff!

Chew by John Layman (Author), Rob Guillory (Artist)

Ever since I first posted on this here blog I’ve been writing (off and on) about trying to find a comic that plays both to the strengths of the medium in terms of imagery and maturity in storytelling and narrative. I believe I’ve found that in Chew. I’ve read the first two trades and feel like I’ve found another comic that fits into the ideal niche for me. The characters are not drawn to look realistic and the plot is not exactly something you can do in many other forms. The structure of the stories, from the prologue to payoff to the larger underlying narrative are all masterfully created and simply fun to read.

The content is a mixture of grotesque gore and the theatrical grotesque. The characters are being asked to partake in activities that go against the very nature of what they feel is right, yet they do it because of their commitment to a greater value they hold. They want truth, justice and to do the right thing and the roadblocks they hit always play upon their actual skills (be it chibopath or police training).

The grotesquery is all mixed up together in proper proportions, like any good recipe. There is humour and there is a plot that has some real consequences for the characters playing simultaneously. This isn’t done easily or all that often in comics. It’s a bit how you can enjoy Hellboy as both a supernatural tale and because the characters approach it like any blue collar day job with the language to match. Here, it’s a boss trying to literally make an employee eat crap mixed in with a police mystery.
This is how I like my cartooning. There is a basis in reality in that the characters all behave logically within the world they find themselves. There is grim subject matter, but there is no excessive grimness in how the characters deal with their reality. They have the full range of emotions from love, hate, silly to angry - all wonderfully rendered in an unique style. But they also have talents, skills and technological upgrades that would just look silly if this was going for a realistic look. And, really, why would I want realism in a comic book? Why limit it in that manner when there is enough other media that handle it better. To me, comics are best when they go for broke and use the visuals to convey a world that can’t exist in reality, and Chew certainly achieves that. The nature of the art lets the characters act and exaggerate in ways that just doesn’t work in other media, which is why I’m reading a comic in the first place. Good stuff.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Canada Reads Jeff Lemire's Essex County!

Yay!  Jeff Lemire has made the top five for the Canada Reads contest.  I've said it before a few times and I'll say it again - this is fantastic Canadian Literature.  I really wish him the best and at the very least this work should reach a new audience.  I'm hoping this is the next Louis Riel crossover.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wasteland: Enjoying the apocolypse, as much as I can

Wasteland by Antony Johnson and Christopher Mitten

Way back when I had a lot more time and was updating this site on a daily or almost daily schedule I came across the solicitation for Wasteland. I was incredibly excited about a new post-apocalyptic book coming out from an author whose work I had already enjoyed. Heck he even posted a comment here. Then five years went by and I never found myself actually picking up the book. I didn’t get a copy of the initial release at the local comic shop so decided to wait for the trade, then a lot of life happened and I’ve ended up finally picking up the Apocalyptic Edition recently.

Boy, am I glad to have finally gotten around to this book, and this edition in particular. Now, I know if I want more issues to come out I should be buying the monthly releases as monthly books live and die by their monthly numbers, but that’s just not possible for me anymore. I don’t have the time to date a store every Wednesday. Getting this cloth bound tome onto my shelves, though, I’m more than happy to do. I’m as every bit an aesthete for the physical product as I am the content and this is one of the better looking books to grace my shelves. It’s next to my pholio versions of Ulysses(it was a gift and I’ve only managed 40 pages about 10 years ago) and 1066 and All That because it just looks like it fits in there. I’m always happy to have a comic book that looks as attractive as anything else I may have lining my shelves.

As for the content, yeah, it matches the presentation spot on. This is both familiar and new at once, something that can either work incredibly well or fail spectacularly. When disparate ideas are mashed together to add new flavour to a genre I’m half reading to see if the writer and artist can pull it off as much as I just enjoy the plot and action. The influences I see here are the Mad Max films and Charlton Heston’s religious epics.

Adding the religious persecution to a wasteland desert is one of those ideas that are so wonderfully apt that it amazes you that you’ve never seen it before. The Sunners are building infrastructure in the same way that the Jews in the Old Testament were building pyramids. They’re slave labour for a pharaoh who has bigger problems than religious intolerance and labour unrest. Add to that a diesel powered caravan and some post apocalyptic city dwelling mutants and you’ve got a corker of a wasteland romp.

There’s a bigger mystery at play here, and it’s mired within religious politics and brutal survival in an unforgiving climate. The mystery gets slowly revealed, piece by piece without ever losing sight of the main characters, Abi and Michael. They’re really the heart of the story, with a few sub-plots amongst city politicians, watchmen and Abi’s friends (current and former). There’s a lot of subterfuge, harsh-realities and mixed in there is unending hope and optimism for something greater that may or may not exist. Is their fabled land of milk and honey real, and if so is it a blessing or a curse? I’ll be there to find out, and I’m planning to take less than five years to find out.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Blacksad - finally.

Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarrido

In my new quest to read less superhero based comic book fare I’ve turned to the vaunted shores of Europe and picked up the recent Dark Horse English translation of Blacksad. The long and short of it are that this is an incredibly beautiful book that is superb cartooning which captures a time, place and genre almost letter perfect. The bad, is that ever since Chris Butcher saw the item in the Previews catalogue he’s placed the furries idea in my head and it tainted the experience (oh relax, I’m not pissed at him or anything). I know that this is just fiction and all, but I’m glad I never had to explain why I’m reading a book with the naked cat people having the sex.

Regardless, this is a great companion piece to the Darwyn Cooke Parker books in that it’s another thirties-forties-fifties based noir book that must be seen to be truly appreciated. The cast is made up of humanized animals where each character is reflected by the animal he is. The cold blooded killers tend to be reptiles, professors are owls, white supremacists weasels - you get the idea. It’s a conceit that is pulled off with aplomb. I kept waiting for the moment it would feel forced, and it never does. It feels like the creators took the funny talking animals genre and recast them in a gritty noir reboot that tries to engage in a realism form, like Marvels or Ex Machina.

What I found even more engaging than the characters was the rendering of the settings and backgrounds. The draftsmanship that goes into setting the stage for these comics is simply stunning. There are shades of Eisner’s New York (the universal setting not necessaryily the book) that are coloured in a muted pallet that feels aged properly, almost water coloured to give it a time appropriate production feel. The props are all note perfect as far as I can tell, which brought me into the world and simply kept me there. It’s not often that I notice the setting, but when it’s done right, it brings me into the story and here it was done so masterfully that I couldn’t look away. When something is done right, it either fades into your memory as accepted or it confidently recognizes its own beauty.

The stories are standard noir fare. Secrets are unleashed, heads are knocked together, people are stabbed and killed. Generally the horrible underbelly of humanity is cut open and spilled on the ground. There are some great ideas presented in the plots, particularly how the creators use the conceit of the anthropomorphic cast to tackle race riots in the middle volume (Arctic Nation) but I felt most of the ideas were related to the craft rather than the actual plot. I’m a story guy through and through, but I felt my enjoyment from these stories came more from appreciated the craft of the stories rather than the fairly generic noir plots. They hit all the key notes and call back to a lot of classic noir movies so it should work but it did just feel all too familiar and expected in terms of twists, turns, and Pyrich victories.

Not having a French volume to compare, I can’t really comment on the quality of the translation but I can say that on a very few occasions the dialogue actually felt translated. It was straightforward and wasn’t broken English but it felt a bit flat and more of a literal translation that lost some of the charters’ voices. It was very few and far between, and not having a copy of the original makes it hard to know if this is an issue of translation or the original writing. There were a few times, as well, where it felt the plot just jumped forward a hell of a lot. I understand the nature of the medium but sometimes those jumps were too pronounced and it felt disjointed, as if the creators wanted to explore moments, characters and develop the plot more but were forced to cut out because of page limits. It never derailed the plot but it would have been nice to see the development or escalation of situations before seeing the setup then resolution on the next page (often in the first panel of the next page). I’m not sure that wanting more of the story is any kind of a valid criticism or not, but httre it is.

But the craft comes through in spades. Not just in the rendering I’ve already mentioned but in how the majority of situations would flow throughout a page. The creators really understand the art of the page turn with often somewhat odd panels ending an even numbered page being revealed on the page turn. It was generally handled with aplomb when moving from one character situation to other times and places. It is only occasionally that it would jump along one character’s arc and feel off. And, ending each volume with a negative black and white image of a loose plot thread was always fun and rewarding. Particularly the confused Australians. Fun stuff.

All in all, this is an easy book to recommend for anyone who likes comics and appreciates both Uncle Scrooge and the Parker books.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What is fair in super hero comic criticism (starring The Flash).

Amazingly, having a small child in your life kind of takes over. Who knew?

Anyway, I had a whole post ready about Flash: Blood Will Run and never really got around to hitting the publish button or whatever. I wasn’t too thrilled with it as I offered a bit of middling commentary about the story and some more vague thoughts about superhero comics. Well, I’ve clearly had a few more weeks to think about it and to think about what is fair and unfair in superhero comic criticism.

Sure, there is a lot out there already about the role of the comic critic, what is needed and what is just tired and biff-bam played out (not for kids no more, baby!). It’s not exactly a new topic for the comic blogging internet, and really, you should have a supply of salt grains when reading about it from someone who updates monthly, or so after quitting a few times because he couldn’t update regularly.

There I was reading my first ever Flash comics. I enjoyed Wally West as both the hero and the regular guy who has issues with being a public hero. The story was hit and miss for me, in that I liked the basic idea of tracking down people the hero saved for nefarious purposes, but it also seemed a bit unneccessary to have that much death and gruesome murder involved. This is an otherwise bright and hopeful hero and I felt like playing up the goofier elements of superheroes would work better here. It seemed to try and set up the antitheses of bright hero dealing with bloody murder and having a kid he didn’t know about. I feel I could write a whole post about how this story treats women. Maybe somewhere more serious than this though.

Throughout it all, I had a nagging thought in the back of my mind. Wally West is such a great character, why would they replace him? It just seems so pointless. This is a character that acknowledges his past, his shortcomings, and his attempts to live up to a legacy. He’s struggling to fit into multiple different roles all while becoming himself. How can the current superhero comic reader NOT identify with these things?

And, yet, he’s gone to be replaced with Barry Allen, who deals with what? Survivor’s guilt? I suppose the ultimate end to Wally is to struggle with everything he has and to eventually come into his own only to sacrifice himself like his forebearer, Barry Allen. Is this what happened or did Wally only get sacrificed by editorial decision rather than narrative and plot driven measures.

I realized all of this was unfair to the comic. I should be able to read it on its own merits etc etc etc. But then it hit me. If comics are sold as a shared universe, and that to get the whole story you need to buy and read more than the story you have in front of you, criticism of the same can go beyond the story in front of you. If you’re expected to get all the Blackest Night tie-in books to understand Blackest Night, then criticising what happens outside of the story you’re reading has validity as well. If everything impacts everything else within the shared publishing medium, the same holds true for criticism of the form.

Unfortunately the sword cuts both ways. If the shared narrative expects the critics and readers of it to work outside of what is immediate, then criticism is required to go outside of what is immediate. It is fair to compare Silver Age Superman to All-Star Superman just as much as it is to wonder why Wally West was replaced by Barry Allen. You do both as a critic, for different reasons, but both end up being valid. Sure, a lot of people use criticism as a synonym for complain but I think it is equally valid to look beyond what is presented to examine and explore what is presented. Wally West is a character who exemplifies the traits of someone living up to expectations and his arc as a character needs to follow that in order to capitalize on this foundation - not have him walk off to alternate realities, or work alongside his mentor again. It was ballsy to kill off Barry Allen and keep him dead, now it’s just kind of cheapened and wasteful. It doesn’t help move superhero comics passed the junkfood of literature, not that it needs to be, but even junkfood needs to be tasty for me to have more.

My next post will detail how I shook my cane at those damned kids on my lawn.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

This is what I'm going to keep looking for more of.

Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cook

With Darwyn Cooke’s upcoming release of Richard Stark’s The Outfit, I figured it was high time I finally got around to buying and reading Parker: the Hunter. I’m so incredibly glad that I did. This is a book that completely captures everything about reading comics that I enjoy - from the visual aesthetics of the art, which is bar none some of the best out there, to the narrative, to the visceral feeling of the book in my hands. This just has it all. It’s the perfect example of something that is just fun to read.

This book feels good in your hands and from the colours used on the cover and the designs on the inside covers, it is a package that completes itself in every detail. This is tough guy action and a dark revenge plot that kind of shows the origins of something like The Punisher, Max series that I’m continuing to read. This is an unstoppable guy out to exact revenge with a heartbroken, beaten down core only he uses it to his benefit and to terrify his enemies.

The other thing about this book that hits the right note with me, particularly, is that the art looks like comic book art. It’s exaggerated, but it captures the characters perfectly. Comics don’t need to look like reality and by not doing so, they tend to work better for me. As long as their internal structure remains intact throughout, then it works well. Why limit yourself to trying to copy reality when you can design your own world. Yes, use the basis so the reader isn’t lost - the core relationship of actors and props (perspective, car and head size, etc) still need to be done right, but they don’t need to be of photographic quality to be hard hitting or mature. This book proves that in spades.

I’m anxiously awaiting the next volume.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Punisher Max by Garth Ennis and various artists

I’ve recently begun to read the Punisher: Max series (first two volumes so far) and this seems to me to be how mature superhero comics can be done well. I know that the Punisher isn’t really a superhero per se, but being a Marvel creation is enough. I mean he is the guy that thugs are freaked out by because he just shoots them in the face while Spider-man or Cpt. America might slug them in the jaw.

The level of realism is jacked up in the clothing style and, (not being a gun guy) I’m guessing weapon design. Although I’m pretty sure some of the facial damage is exaggerated for effect. Still, having the stories of a cold, unfeeling killing machine actually be interesting, tense and perhaps a bit heart breaking is no small feat.

At the core of the motivation for Frank is the death of his family that he couldn’t prevent and the atrocities from Viet Nam that he never recovered from. This felt a bit in the vein of First Blood more so than Rambo II (until they dropped him into Russia and he flew out of a military base on a nuclear missile). This feels mature like a great grindhouse movie. It’s simple, I get the motivation, and it’s just damn fun to look at. Then there’s the ridiculous amount of blood spilt and the various amputations and extremely villainous plot for revenge on one man.

Frank is the unmoveable object against the unstoppable force of crime and harm in New York. New people are always ready to fill in the gaps of the people he brings down and he’s ready to oppose them too. He’s fatalistic and accepts his role and eventual death. He continues his fight despite the hopelessness of his situation. He is a self aware man and it is that self awareness that allows him to win. He knows he can stand in one place and fire a gun until the bullets run out while someone else will duck and cover when attempting the same thing.

It’s his self awareness as an unmoving force and not his ruthlessness that allows him to be the Punisher. Only if he is fully aware and realizes his abilities can he be as unfeeling and ruthless as he is presented here. Sure the self awareness is brought to extremes but it was refreshing to read about a character that is completely accepting of his role and the place he created for himself rather than another old man riddled with self-doubt, wondering if they’re doing the right thing. Frank just knows that it won’t stop, he knows he won’t inspire the populace to behave and get along, that for every bullet he spends, he’ll need ten more. He just accepts that and gets on with it. No grandiose statements, no profound personal codes, just one man doing what he can to the best of his abilities.

And sometimes, those abilities mean he gets to take on the entire Russian army and fly away on a nuclear missile, which in case you didn’t know is completely rad.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Sinestro Corps War has revealed my fear of event comics

The other late great event comic that I’ve read somewhat after the sell-by date is the Sinestro Corps Wars as found in the pages of the somewhat recently relaunched Green Lantern. I was never a very big Green Lantern fan. Not through any problem I have with the character or any sort of Marvel vs. DC loyalty. I was just never really interested in him. I never dismissed him outright, like other readers have, as just some dude with a magic wishing ring. But I have to say that I used to love the panels on the old Absorbascon blog that had Hal being hit in the head with random yellow stuff.

Is this a great story line? For the character – yes; for the uninitiated – not really. Luckily I had read some of the other recent DC crossovers, so I got the whole superboy prime stuff and the Anti-Monitor being a big deal but so much of the threats and reveals of this story required knowledge of past DC Comics that is felt a bit like a long inside joke. Sure you wouldn’t be totally lost coming to this cold, but unlike Planet Hulk where previous knowledge of the Marvel Universe merely enhances what is there, the big developments and shocking reveals in this storyline require you to have the same knowledge that the writers have.

There’s nothing wrong with giving your new readers something to go back and research. Hey, they’ll buy old comics (or at least the trade collection of Crisis of Infinite Earths, or whatever), and by showing them these really wild and crazy characters that are huge threats could spark imaginations to a point where they go back to just know more. Then again, who am I kidding, anyone reading this comic is likely to have been reading all the comics required to understand everything that happens. I know I’m building a bit of a straw-man argument here, but at the same time, there was enough going on that I just couldn’t follow.

I guess, Blackest Night, would be more of a proper Event comic for me to read but that wasn’t available. And really, this was enough for me. Again, I like the idea of it. Having an opposing force of Yellow Lanterns that take the fight to the Green Lanterns is an idea so perfect for the comic that it’s unbelievable that this is the first time it’s actually happened. Then the spectrum of rings coming out was just that much better. So, why the heck was I basically feeling “meh” about this?

Well, it comes down to a few things really. I didn’t read the complete run of Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps before reading these collections. It bothers me that I need to have collected and read two entire series in order to build a relationship with characters I’m supposed to care about. That relationship should be built into the actual story. Heck, I ended up empathizing with the Forgotten Lanterns or whatever they were called, more than the heroes. I kept reading a lot of the non-human characters as “sexy elf chick” or “XXXX-treme army dude” or whatever since they were all basically characterized a bit overly simplistic to a point where I didn’t really care if they made it or not. Having the Guardians of the Galaxy basically address me by saying “oh yeah, make sure that guys lives, he’s super important” is not exactly my favourite type of storytelling.

And then there’s the plot jumps. Okay, it wasn’t the worst, but it could have been used so much better. Rather than have “meanwhile, back at the ranch” type of breaks between areas of the corps war, we could have one plot developing along one narrative line. I felt like I kept getting pulled back like a little kid trying to tell you a joke he once heard at recess. “Oh yeah, and so he was all like ‘bllaaaah’ and, oh yeah, I should have said that he was a vampire, and then, there was this rabbit, did I mention is was happening at the north pole?” etc. etc. I appreciate getting more of the story, but the result felt scattered and pulled me out of the narrative flow a bit too jarringly, only to jump back to finish up the last story. Couldn’t these have been handled in separate books without damaging either narrative?

So, anyway, that’s it for me and event comics for a little while.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two parts of the same Hulk: Planet Hulk and World War Hulk

Soooooo, Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. Yeah, I’m kind of coming late to a lot of parties here. What do you want, I’ve got a new kid, so I read what I can get at the library.

I was reading Planet Hulk when it was being released but a job change meant cutting down the subscription and it was one of the books I knew I’d likely get in trade. It’s a pretty simple idea that works unbelievably well. Send the Hulk into space but have him as the protagonist in Spartacus or Gladiator. Voila, comic book gold. There are new characters introduced who are all wonderfully atmospheric to the setting and who are also that wonderful breed of character only found in the Big Two superhero comics – the revamp/archival character rewritten for a modern story. This could be cynically keeping intellectual property on their creations or just a great way to add characters relevant to a story but with a bit of extra “wink, wink” to the comic reader with an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel’s history. Sure there’s some recaps in there too where they talk about their own history just for good measure, but really, there’s some good easter eggs in the new warriors.

Now, why is Planet Hulk so dang good? I have a fairly standard conversation with my wife regarding The Incredible Hulk whenever he comes up, for whatever reason. She simply says, “I just don’t understand The Hulk. I mean what’s the point? He’s not a hero. He doesn’t really do anything.” Whereby I’ll follow up with, “well, that’s kind of exactly the point. It’s sort of about the duality of man. That if left alone we can be peaceful but we have a tendency not to leave well enough alone and end up creating very destructive things from our own technologies and within our own nature. It’s not about him not being the hero but being something that shows how cruel, petty and evil people can be. Yeah, he’s the uncontrollable force but he wouldn’t be a problem if people just weren’t dicks.” Whereby, she says, “Okay, but I still don’t really see the point. Why would I want to watch/read that?”

It kind of hit me while reading Planet Hulk. It’s what surrounds him. It’s how he affects and plays off the characters surrounding him that make him interesting. Create a great setting with great characters then throw him in the middle of it and the character works. Otherwise, it’s just finding a reason to make Bruce Banner mad then smashing stuff. It becomes the slapstick solutions to the problem of Hulking-out that you can find in droves on YouTube.

Give him a reason for his anger that isn’t physical – yes, he’s isolated physically, but it’s the emotional betrayal that fortifies the Hulk here. It cuts on a whole different level that just gets more and more reinforced through his physical challenges until it is brought around full circle to another deeply emotional wound at the end of the arc.

The big difference seems to be that on Sakaar the Hulk has an audience that is being influenced by him. What is the message he gives his followers – destroy at all costs, never stop making them pay, etc. On Earth, those around him tend to either pity him or want to control/destroy him. On Sakaar, they either fear or love him. Fear and love are much different beasts than pity and desire to control/destroy. On Sakaar the desire to understand Hulk are also found on an emotional level rather than the scientific level found on Earth.

In other words, it’s wonderful stuff and by the end of it you simply can’t wait to have him go back to enact his revenge. It is all justifiable and righteous.

And then there’s World War Hulk which just felt like a lot of wasted potential. There was a great game with home runs, the bases are loaded and while there’s a few runs scored, it’s not the grand slam it could have been. Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot more of the Blue Jays than I ever have in my life. There’s some great punch ups, and it’s great to see Hulk being the same righteous leader that he was in Planet Hulk, only playing with the toys of the Marvel universe. The trouble is the same old bugaboo as all these event comics of the last few years. There is simply too much happening outside of the main book for it to have much impact. The original Secret Wars, this is not. That was a comic that explained everything in the comic series itself. Here, there are some good action scenes with Iron Man in his Hulk busting suit, General Thuderbolt Ross, and some bits with Stephen Strange, but overall there were too many quick hits that could have been much more interesting than, hey, I think Hulk is hitting Luke Cage or some of the X-men.

There’s also a gratuitous butt shot of She-Hulk that stands out like a sore thumb to me. There’s a massive sound concussion that blurs everything, except her ass. Okay, maybe her ass has some kind of special sound cancelling properties but this is just completely gratuitous and just annoys the hell out of me. It pulls me out of the comic because it’s one of those unnecessary things that just doesn’t need to be there and cheapens the whole experience for me as a reader.

In the end, what really kind of gets me is that other hobgoblin of the superhero comic mind – the retcon. They didn’t even wait that long for this one. At the end of World War Hulk the protagonist discovers that “hey, this was all a misunderstanding because the justified and righteous reasons that brought you back to earth were actually caused by someone else completely, who went back to their home planet and died there.” So, while there’s an argument that, yeah, the Hulk is still justified because the other heroes acted like dicks, the retconning is a blatant attempt to make them seem somewhat less dickish. The story works better when they are simply wrong and get their asses handed to them like they deserved rather than, oh yeah, whoops I probably shouldn’t have beaten you to near death because something completely unrelated and not even hinted at was the real cause for setting me on this course.

It’s cheap, and it makes me glad I didn’t buy this when it was coming out. It also really just shows the whole problem that Marvel started with Civil War. You can’t have heroes on both sides. Superhero comics just don’t work that way. You can have protagonists, you can have anti-heroes, villains, misunderstood villains, but you can’t have heroes on opposing sides. I know I shouldn’t write in absolutes here, but if you handle things this sloppily, you’re just making your heroes into dicks because you don’t want them to be villains. At least have the gumption to make them out and out villains. Dickish heroes can also work but when it goes across your line and into characters that were never set up that way, it just doesn’t work.

I feel like this whole part of the Marvel history should be like that episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine when the crew goes back to the Tribble episode and they ask Worf about the Klingon’s looking differently. He looks annoyed and says, “we don’t talk about that time.” I kind of hope that’s what happens in the Marvel Universe. It seems to need a good solid flush of the toilet rather than a deal with the devil, that’s what got it into this mess and it ruined a great set up story.

These are good creators who create stuff I like. I guess I understand what it’s like when you’re stuck doing a project that your manager, director or committee ruins. You’re stuck trying to finish it with the most dignity you can and in a manner that you can still try to salvage, but in the end you’re stuck working on yet another lame duck. What a shame.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The New Frontier - do we really need to explore this all again?

Okay, so I'm reading a lot of books from years ago that people really liked.  So sue me, I've been busy.

I’m really torn on this one. On the one hand, I pretty much love anything that Darwyn Cooke does; on the other hand I think I’ve hit critical mass of exploring the DC Universe.  I've got to accept my crotchity-old-manness here and just shake my cane at the fools not doing things exactly how I want them.

Here’s the thing though, I wish that the world Darwyn Cooke created for The New Frontier was simply the DC Universe. I like what he’s done and the tension between the super-heroes and the rest of the population in the setting he’s made. A slightly tweaked DC universe that lets all the heroes be heroes without the faux gravitas handled clumsily in so many of today’s superhero comics.

They’re heroes because that’s what they should be doing. Sure there is tension and all the tropes found in the genre, but at its core this is yet another hopeful book that writes over the past to create a retro-future. Sure there’s some rose coloured glasses that are used to view the past, but it makes heroes for today by giving them a past I can identify with and enjoy. Yes, the quirks and social norms of the past can be used to great affect but when the goal is to make a bright and shiney superhero yarn then cleaning up things is fine by me.

It’s sort of a non-problem when what I want is more of what is hinted at and glanced at to tell the story. Each little vignette that tells the larger plot is a world I want to see more of, and it kind of annoys me that the only chance there is to get these stories are in stand-alone stories. I guess this is sort of a rail against the medium type of critique which I didn’t intend since I pretty much love the comic. I guess I just don’t want to be limited to only getting heroic stories that are yet another exploration of one creator’s version of the DC universe. It should just be done in the regular books (in any superhero book at any company).

That’s the rub. This proves that bright, positive comics are extremely well received so why don’t we see more? They aren’t light on conflict, tension or even relevant social issues. They can explore themes, story ideas and even go along the superhero tropes as well, if not better, than yet another grim, everything changes plotline.

These are stories where adventure reigns and the adventurers simply do what needs to be done - some dealing with personal issues, self-doubt, political pressure, or whatever.  In the end, they're all heroic which is what the focus should be, rather than the woe-is-me hand wringing followed by "hey! look, something shocking!" It only works when it's not the norm, which is, I guess, why The New Frontier works so well for me.  It's the diamond in the rough.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dr. Thirteen: I read the modern mainstream superhero critical darling

I’ve been trying to limit my reading to comics that have been generally well received by sources I trust. Obviously, I trust myself most so I’m okay in just picking up anything by certain authors, but like most anyone reading this, I have a group of blogs and other online sources that I find steer me right. Since the whole reworking of the multiverse in DC over the last few years, this book popped up and was loved by anyone who read it. Or so it seemed in the circles I ran in (i.e. sites I lurked on).

I find that, for whatever reason, I tend to read a lot of superhero stories that explore the nature of the superhero shared continuity. This is no different, and it is done how I like it. The writing and the art both perfectly capture the sheer joy that can be found in the DC universe. It hits the high notes of being able to go metatextual in having the Architects subbing in as the four main creators brought in to guide the comic line over the recent past/present; exploring the past of adventure, war, magic and space comics; and to explore how a normal guy who is logically skeptical can exist in a fantastically illogical setting.

The story hits on what DC has been very successful at lately, in dusting off their legacy properties and introducing them to the modern reader. The real highlight for the non-comic book reading public was probably JLU, but if you look at DC from about the late eighties when Swamp Thing was relaunched this is pretty much their M.O. Heck, they’ve managed a heck of a lot of reboots in the last decade, and sure, not all of them stick or are good, I still think there’s a definite winning ratio here.

I love how there’s no shying away at just how simply wacky and frenetic DC comics can be in this series. Azzarello just starts playing with the toys, so to speak, and goes hog wild with them. I think the last Azzarello DC comic I read was from his Batman run and while I liked the individual aspects of the story, in the end I just didn’t follow it. Then again, I’m half remembering that but it did have me a bit hesitant to pick up this book, even with all the positive reviews. And, well, I could just look at Cliff Chiang’s art all day long. The bright happy presentation just matches the zany plot perfectly.

This is one of the books I’d recommend to people who want to understand what being a superhero comic fan is all about. It introduces all the ideas of a shared universe without requiring a crazy amount of time and money investment to get the back story. I feel overwhelmed by a lot of ongoing superhero books where if I just join the story mid-arc I’m lost but there’s just a rabbit hole of back story to get in order to catch up. Not so here. Sure, knowing about the various Crisis bits might help, but I don’t think it would take away from understanding. It didn’t for me.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen

Get out the dusty pocket book, open the wallet and let the moth fly away free and use that hard earned credit to buy the first published book that has me listed as a contributing author. I’m crazy excited by this development and it ranks second only to the birth of my son in terms of recently amazing developments in my life.

Available in this month’s Previews (August 2010) for an October release, you’ll find Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen. Inside you’ll find my hopefully fairly coherent writings on how the different points of view that frame the comic and give it structure and symmetry also creates meaning in the text. I explore how the idea of fearful symmetry is explored in the physical text but also in the different world views of the characters and their accompanied symbols.

It’s edited by Richard Bensam with essays by Mary Borsellino, Tim Callahan, Julian Darius, Walter Hudsick, Geoff Klock, John Loyd, Patrick Meaney, Chad Nevett, Gene Phillips, William Richie, and Peter Sanderson.

The book will be available from Amazon and Lulu as well as at New York Comic Con on October 8th. Buy a copy for yourself, someone who loves Watchmen, or anyone else that can read English.

Like my wife says, this should really get me blogging again. I'm hoping it'll get me writing more, too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Swamp Thing's the Thing.

A few months ago I finally finished reading Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. At the time I was reading it the Darkest Night/Brightest Day event was taking place (or is it still going on?). Anyway, I found it slightly amusing that Alan Moore did a similar type of arc in Swamp Thing. Okay, not the emotional spectrum aspect, that’s a great idea, but having Swamp Thing travel through space an becoming different colours at each location seems fairly reminiscent. Related, probably, direct rip-off, not likely.

When I first started to read Swamp Thing I thought that the key metaphor was tree rings. That the series and stories were structured around a series of concentric rings that envelope one another. The series would hop from one layer to another and as the years passed a new layer would be added. As I finish up Alan Moore’s run on it, that metaphor feels more apt than ever.

These stories went from exploring the roots of the character to the depths of a recreated shared universe. They found Batman in Gotham and Adam Strange on Raan. They invented a mythos of their own while playing with the toys of a shared space. There were mysteries, horror comics, postmodern cut-ups, sci-fi stories, you name it – Swamp Thing managed to explore the aspects of creativity as much as the form of comic books.

I guess with the whole thing about Vertigo and DC getting the band back together, that’s what I’d hope for. I don’t really care if these characters interact or not so long as the stories being told are masterful. I’m a simple guy that way. Tell a good story and I’ll be happy.

Today I learned that Harvey Pekar died and I regret not ever reading any of his work. It’s been on my list of things to read for years now. I feel like I never found the time because I was too busy catching up on Alan Moore’s career. Now seems like the time to, at least, get something out of the library.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Great Canadian Theatre Company Poster

Yesterday I was walking home from the grocery store when I passed the Great Canadian Theatre Company ( and notice this wonderful poster. To advertise their next season they've apparently contracted a bunch of Canadian Cartoonists (I'm assuming they're all Canadian) to make advertising materials. You can see the poster I originally saw at the bottom of the link I sent although depending on when you read this, it may have changed.

Anyway, I see Jeff Lemire's work along with what I think is Faith Erin Hicks. Can anyone identify the rest of them?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mind = Blown

I just finished reading the first book of the Omnibus collection for Jack Kirby's Fourth World. When my friend lent it to me his words were "prepare for you mind to be blown." I knew it was going to be wall to wall ideas thrown onto the panels but I don't think I was quite ready for what I got.

I love how everything is simply introduced and the reader just runs with it, much like the characters. I was told that the core element of the whole Fourth World stories is that it's basically a passion play. While I can see that I also think there's something a bit more going on. Yes, there's the structure of myths and legends that's found in most religious stories but there's also a blending of ideas.

I think these stories reflect the time in which they were created as much, if not more than their structure as mythical legends and stories of new gods. Jimmy Olsen and the new Newsboy Legion are at odds with the older generation embodied in Superman and the original NBL. The older generations take a patronizing view towards them, even when they're right to worry and protect their general approach to keep information hidden is what really leads to the trouble. As much, if not more so, than the youthful energy and curiosity of the protagonists. These people were once just as impetuous and unflappable that it's frustrating when they don't realize how they're acting in a way that doesn't recognize the same quality in their kids.

Science is at a point where it takes on mythical procedures, raising people from the dead and creating fantastical and grotesque versions of humanity. Light and dark are split along with nature and manufacturing. There is a blending of ideas on fundamental ideas to present very familiar foundations to the viewer. Sure, the details are different but Mohammed still goes to the mountain or the mountain comes to him. I can never remember how that saying goes, but when Jimmy Olsen looks for the mountain, it literally snatches him up. I could sit here all day pointing out how Kirby has taken countless dichotomies to create new synchronies to create a new reality full of dichotomies within which the characters struggle.

All of this reflects the reality that I believe Kirby was seeing around him. Young people and their parents were looking at the world in vastly different ways because of the events that shaped generations. It’s present here, not just in the wars they fought, but in how they carve out a place for themselves in the world. They fail to see the similarities they share because of events that distinctly cut off youth and adolescence with adulthood. The young man volunteers for a war and comes home an adult to a changed place. The current youth are being dragged into a new war and are aware of what happened to their parents so are going reluctantly. Behind all of this is a society that is struggling with its ever increasing secularity. God is dead and science killed him only to end up being worshiped in a similar manner and God won’t wait around to die but marshal forces to come back ever more fervently. Just look to how religion and science co-exist so peacefully today.

I think these are some of the ideas Kirby’s work is revealing. Although you might not get a chance to see it behind all the wonderful crackle that is thrown at you asking you to simply keep up and enjoy the ride. Just wear an explosion proof helmet or your brain may explode if you’re not ready for this.

What I do like though, and I think needs more attention drawn to it, is that even though Kirby is dealing with big ideas here, he’s coming at it with such joy that it just reads as ever more groundbreaking. You can be contemporary without being realistic, without being gruesome and without trying to consciously be adult. In fact, that’s the problem right there. Be contemporary without being immature and you’ll create good comics.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Comics on the radio

Last night I heard All In a Day interview Tom Fowler and Jeff Parker about Mysterius the Unfathomable (aka yet another comic I forgot about but am now reminded to get but is in good company). It's always so nice to catch a bit of my nerdly leanings on the "normal" media. Not just because it's something I like being talked about but because when two guys like this who are personable and clearly having fun doing something they love, it gets me all excited about comics again. It reminds me of their charm and joy along with the fact that with the internet I can simply avoid crap comics now and continue to focus on stuff I enjoy or am more likely to enjoy.

It made my day and I hope I can sneak out of the office long enough to get a copy of the trade and get it signed by Tom on St. Paddy's day (or as I like to call it "Invent an Irish Relative Day" - my great great grandfather's cousin once had an Irish setter which is why I speak with this outrageously mangled Irish accent).

Friday, February 19, 2010

Collecting some thoughts on Essex County

One of the things I love most about comics and all cartooning for that matter is that they create an obviously interpreted world. In my opinion comic art that exaggerates or simplifies the world in meaningful ways is what appeals so much about the artform. Yes, there is a lot of personal aesthetics involved when approaching or talking about art – some people don’t like black and white, me – I’m not a huge fan of photorealism. If I wanted things to “look real” then I’d just watch something with live actors. This isn’t to say that photorealism is worse than other art, there is a lot of skill and love that goes into that work and it can be very impressive. However, the strength of the cartoon medium is that nothing needs to be realistic.

Blending realistic elements into comics, on the other hand, does seem to work when you think about narrative. I should really get my thoughts together on Maus, which I just re-read. It is a masterful combination of real and cartoon, but if you flipped the elements and made the art more photoreal and the narrative more fictional it just wouldn’t hold the same appeal. Now, simplified doesn’t mean lazy or messy. When I see simplified artwork I see a wonderful economy of linework. Every piece must be just right in order for it to work; there is care in the placing of every element on a page.

Combine this style of art with a good story and you’ve got me hooked (most times). For whatever reason I find that in having characters that can be expressive and “act” for the artist seems to allow for stronger storytelling. This allows for really fantastical stories but it also allows more down to earth and real “slice of life” storytelling. By keeping one aspect stylized, the rest of the elements become more powerful in the weird balance of ideas that Scott McLoud explores a lot better than I ever hope to.

So what’s all this leading to? I reread Jeff Lemire’s Essex County and it’s really fucking good. I’m generally burned out on the usual Can Lit stuff (depressing things happening in small communities) but his art and story telling completely sucks me in. I’d read the first two volumes previously, and my wife picked up the collected edition for me as a Christmas gift, and I happily read the whole thing cover to cover. The way these lives intersect and inform one another is made all the more engaging simply by how the pages look. The characters come to life with Lemire’s lines and inks that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. You see the pain of ages on faces and the desire to get lost in imagination. The connection to the land and the ties of history are all reflected in the enduring love that one character has for another.

Essex County is really a great place to visit that slowly draws you in and reveals the connection that these characters have to one another and to the place. This isn’t a tapestry, it’s a lovely torn rag mat that was put together by someone who is wisely frugal. Shit, I should have written this based around that metaphor – it really is a beautifully woven and solid piece of work that invites you in and stays with you after you put it down, which I used to find incredibly rare in comics (but I’m seeing my tastes change and my purchases lead me to more material that isn’t just simple plot).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Decompression Project - The End?

Aaaaaand, I finally managed to get my library account up and running again. The local branch is being renovated, I moved and met various other life goals in the last few months – so comic books have gone waaaaaaaay down the priority list. Writing about them is slightly in front of getting poisoned in my list of things to do.

Anyway, I got Volume 20 of Ultimate Spider-Man and pretty much forgot the entire plot of what happened before this volume. I know I enjoyed them, the proof is throughout the archives here. But this time, I got to say that I found it a lot less enjoyable. I still think that it’s a well constructed comic. I think the dialogue is fine, I think the action could be a little more exciting though, but all in all, it’s a decent distraction.

I think what’s happening is that this is just more of the same. It’s starting to get a bit less distinguishable from anything else that I could read and with so much great stuff out there I wonder why I’m reading something that’s merely good. Okay, damning with very faint praise I know. It is good, but I just feel like I can’t relate to this anymore or don’t particularly want to. I’ve realized that I’m glad high school is long behind me and I don’t particularly need to revisit any of it in my entertainment choices anymore.

I think this will be the last volume I check out of the library. I’m going to try some manga instead as my next long-term library reading series. Thankfully Chris Butcher has given a bit of guidance, although I’ll likely be checking out a few other things that catch my eye rather than just go through his best of the decade stuff. Or, most important of the decade as I guess he’s calling his series.

So yeah, this just felt more teen drama than teen drama superhero comic.