Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Bring on the Surfer Bats!

October 31, 2012
The Southern California Surfer Bats #1
By Ryan Shepard & Ian Crowe

If you were a kid in the late ’80s, you loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show. Don’t bother telling me different; it was the law back then. In fact, Federal love subsidies made the production of animal superhero teams so cost effective that Saturday morning TV was flooded with them. Perhaps you remember Street Sharks, Biker Mice From Mars, Extreme Dinosaurs, C.O.W.Boys of Moo Mesa, Dino Squad, Dinosaucers, Samurai Pizza Cats or The Mighty Ducks (not the movies; the cartoon show about humanoid ducks who come from a world where hockey is the supreme religion (it was a weird time)).

You’re reading a comics blog, so you probably know that the Ninja Turtles started out as a gritty black-and-white independent comic parodying Frank Millar’s run on Daredevil. What you may not know is that the comic book was also massively popular, so much so that it spawned a slew of imitators, like Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Pre-Teen Dirty Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos, Cold-blooded Chameleon Commandos and dozens more I can’t actually remember off the top of my head.

Funny animal comics were actually pretty big in the ’80s; an old comic shop ad I have lists the price for a #1 issue of Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters at $13. But that was the ’80s; by the ’90s, the black-and-white bubble had popped, and the comics-buying public realized they had bought a bunch of instantly dated, not terribly funny cash-ins. As comics taste changed from the flash in the pan of fighting animals to the timeless art of Rob Liefield, the Ninja Turtles Parody genre largely dried up.

Until now!

Ryan Shepard and Ian Crowe’s Southern California Surfer Bats aims to take us back to that mutant filled time of our youth. How well does it work? Let’s listen to the SCSB Theme Song and take a look.

Well, first off, let’s talk about the elephant in the room here: This art’s not very good at all! That’s really all I have to say about that, except dude, go a little easier on the gradients.

So, with the art out of the way, allow me to summarize the story. The time is 1979, the place is Venice Beach, and our heroes Slater and Jenny are too busy making out to notice that a Nike-shaped spaceship is crashing into the beach.

The next day, we meet Emmette, an old-school nerd complete with bowl cut, sweater vest, and bow tie. He asks the somewhat Muppet-like Jenny to go to prom with him, but she gently turns him down, since she’s already going with Slater.

Emmette’s not just a nerd, though, he’s also a mad scientist! He puts a tracking device on Jenny’s car, but signals from the alien ship interfere with his tracker, and when he shows up at the crash site, he finds enough alien technology scattered over the beach to feed his mad-science habit for years to come.

Meanwhile, the aliens, having been injured in the spaceship crash, are forced to take over the bodies of some nearby bats in order to survive.

Then everybody spends the next ten years and eight pages not doing much of anything.

The End.

And that brings me to the major problem I have with this comic: There aren’t any surfing bats in it. I mean, how does that even happen in a comic called Southern California Surfer Bats? I came to see humanoid bat monsters catching gnarly waves and foiling Emmette’s totally bogus plots.

I think this is a particular disease that American comics tend to fall into a lot, both in print and on the web. Since comics are very often written with the expectation that they’re going to run for dozens of issues, creators seem to pace them out as one long story, forgetting that we readers are only going to be getting tiny chunks parceled out over long periods of time.

So you get things where web comics that only put up one page a week will have an eight-page fight sequence, forgetting that, for the audience, that’s two months with no advances in plot or characterization. Or you get Southern California Surfer Bats, which delays all the money shots until issue two.

All of the exposition and set-up in this first issue is justified, and if I were reading it as the first 23 pages of a 48-page comic, I wouldn’t even blink at it. But I’m not; I got a review copy of issue #1, and issue #2 isn’t coming for at least a couple of months.

Honestly, I can get past the art, and the occasional typo, but darn it, I want to see some Surfer Bats!

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Simon Pegg writes about spinning childhood obsessions into nerd gold

October 17, 2011
Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to
Becoming a Big Kid

Gotham Books – hardcover, $27.50
By Simon Pegg

This was an interesting read immediately after Grant Morrison’s Supergods, as both examine largely American popular culture from a UK point of view and delve into its influence beyond American shores and on the authors specifically. Of course, whereas Morrison limits his discussion to superhero comic books, Pegg’s interest is in popular culture broadly, though with a focus on those types of films, television, books, and even comics (a little) that engender in a certain type of viewer/reader a desire to obsessively re-watch or endlessly discuss nuances with others of the faithful. In other words, the popular culture that appeals to nerds. The importance of these works to Pegg’s biography is hard to overstate, as his career as actor and writer from the television show Spaced to movies like Hot Fuzz and Paul is built on extended riffs on such material.

Nerd Do Well
is, on one level, Pegg’s memoir of growing up and developing his comic voice, spanning his childhood and young adulthood, up through the filming and release of Shaun of the Dead, the film that brought him to semi-prominence to American audiences. However, with the exception of a few passages describing the formulation of early jokes and an acknowledgment of his creative debt to writing partners Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright, Pegg delves very little into the process of writing or shooting the television and movies that he’s been involved in. Indeed, while the book is a work of autobiography, Pegg repeatedly expresses reservations about discussing his life, and outside of a few comic anecdotes, he plays the book’s biographical elements close to the vest.

That’s fine, as the real purpose and value of Nerd Do Well is as a book-length answer to the question, “What are your influences?” Where the story of Pegg’s early childhood is amusing but largely unremarkable and disjointed (another quality the book shares with Supergods is a tendency to reveal details out of order, following a narrative thread across a few years, moving onto a new topic, and then finally returning to where he left off a few chapters later), he brings enormous passion to the discovery and discussion of the films and television that formed his artistic sensibility.

Here Pegg is generous and eloquent, and the book comes to life when he describes the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time. Having studied film in college, Pegg is fluent in critical theory and expounds at entertaining length on his theories as to the resonance of popular franchises with audiences. Star Wars, he speculates, came out at a moment when America was ready to guiltily reevaluate its position as global empire, and he notes similarities between the United States and the Galactic Empire, which peaks when the Empire is defeated in a jungle environment by a vastly outgunned militia of local inhabitants in Return of the Jedi. Of course, he never loses sight of the surface elements that attract young viewers and is an equally astute observer of the less macro emotional levels that these films work on, mentioning on more than one occasion that E.T. brought him to tears as a child.

Later, Pegg turns the same critical lens on his own work, bringing a refreshing self-awareness to a description of the Oedipal issues at play in Shaun of the Dead, an analysis of the consequences of two possible interpretations of the film’s ending and the male wish-fulfillment aspect of the female lead implied by one of them. The feeling is not unlike that of watching a film with audio commentary more concerned with emotional honesty than on-set hijinx.

The tone will be familiar and welcome to many readers in its down-to-earth perspective and genuine humbled excitement at the accomplishments and opportunities Pegg has had. The book’s structuring element is the ESTB—electro-static time ball—which Pegg imagines using to visit a younger self who has just fallen in love with a particular film or television show to announce that his grown-up self has just gotten to contribute to the genre in question or work with the director in question. It’s a disarming technique, although it becomes overused toward the end, when the book devolves into a a series of encounters with famous actors and directors and the ESTB metaphor seems to get pulled out on every page. The enthusiasm for meeting these people feels genuine—it doesn’t seem like namedropping in the sense of trying to impress the reader—but Pegg’s pleasure at meeting yet another beloved filmmaker becomes tryingly repetitive.

One more device that overstays its welcome is the fictional story that opens each chapter, depicting a superheroic version of Pegg on a mission to save the world. Early on it plays a counterpoint to Pegg’s discomfort with sharing the details of his life by giving him something else to write about, and the beginning is amusing, particularly in how the over-the-top description of Pegg’s prowess, both crime-fighting and sexual, makes Pegg himself the butt of the joke without resorting to self-depricatoin. But as the main narrative becomes more pleasurable, the superhero story becomes an unwelcome interruption, though individual installments remain brief. It’s a minor issue, but the inclusion of this element feels distracting.

Nerd Do Well is not the greatest work of pop culture critical analysis you’ll read this year, but it is a clear-eyed and enjoyabe look at how a nerd-culture figure like Pegg has transformed the fictions of is childhood and young adulthood into nostalgic yet fresh-feeling stories today. He includes a wide range of influences from Raiders of the Lost Ark to 2000AD and presents a clear path from experiencing the work to absorbing it to synthesizing it with his comedic style and a few autobiographical touches (though very few of those are explored, the primary one being the influence of a recent breakup with a pseudonymed woman on Spaced. Channeling his heartbreak over the terribleness of The Phantom Menace falls into a weird middle ground) to create his comedy and film writing. Though a flawed and incomplete portrait of Pegg’s creative process, for most of its pages Nerd Do Well is a fun and genial tour through the pop culture of the 1980s through the 2000s and how much they mean to one of their more eloquent admirers, like a long, funny chat over drinks with one of your smarter, nerdier friends.

The Wimpy Kid Who Roared

November 14, 2010
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Greg Heffley’s Journal
Amulet Books – hardcover, $12.95
By Jeff Kinney

Since writing my recent columns on all-ages and kids’ comics, I’ve become very curious about the Wimpy Kid series, the almost-comics that sell in the millions, have been adapted into two films, and will be added to this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. As befits a group that enjoys categorizing as much as comics fans do, there’s been some discussion as to whether the books technically constitute comics, but I’m happy to let in something that’s close enough (the book bills itself as “a novel in cartoons”) and is as widely beloved as the Wimpy Kid books.

Figuring it was time I saw for myself what it was all about, I placed a hold at the very comics-friendly Multnomah County library system, and found that there were over 20 holds ahead of me. Still, it didn’t take long to get a copy, as the library system has 62 copies. (By contrast, there were six copies of Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1, eight copies of Blackest Night, and even Bone vol. 1 had a relatively paltry 18 copies.) When it arrived, I checked and saw that the copy I received is a 28th(!) printing. That’s since just 2007, and it has apparently gone back to press more times since the library acquired this copy, as amazon.com now lists the book at $13.95.

It’s not hard to see why the book is popular, thanks to both its format and its humor. The diary structure makes it perfect for bite-sized reading. While I read the whole thing in a little over an hour, the short entries instead of chapters make the book easy to dip into for a minute or two, while the way that stories build across entries easily sustains momentum for longer reading sessions. The lined paper, handwriting-styled font and the pictures, of which there are at least one on each page, many with word balloons, make the book eye-catching on a flip through. The drawings are very well integrated, coming naturally at moments when it makes more sense to illustrate a moment than explain it, and the effect adds extra oomph to several punchlines. The only problem comes when an inviting drawing draws the eye to a punchline too early, which it is more prone to do on a page of text than amongst other panels also containing artwork.

The book has a compelling main figure in Greg, just smart enough for his sarcastic observations to be funny and to get himself into unique forms of trouble, but not self-aware enough to understand why other characters see him the way they do or how he should behave to change their opinions. He’s selfish, defensive (an early entry insists that the reader is seeing his “journal,” not his “diary”), materialistic, ungrateful and rude. Like a kid, in short, but in situations amusing enough and surrounded by other students repugnant enough that it’s nonetheless easy to root for him.

Greg is chronicling his first year of middle school, and author Jeff Kinney has created a strange but familiar world for the school to inhabit. My middle school certainly didn’t have a “cheese touch,” but it had its own rituals to which the cheese touch is comparable. There are no identifiable cliques or class hierarchies, the usual fictional shorthand for middle- and high-school life. There are popular kids and unpopular ones, but mostly there are motley freaks, and whatever divisions there are are fairly fluid. Greg and his best friend Rowley have a falling out, but eventually reconnect, and while there’s little reason for any of it, that’s pretty much how it is for kids, a reality mirrored in the structure of the book, which doesn’t have a central plot so much as a series of events that make up a school year.

The origin of the cheese touch. Click for full-size images.

What I found most impressive in reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid is Kinney’s easy handling of the different timeframes that children and adults live on, and how unfathomable the difference is to each group. When Greg’s P.E. class has a wrestling unit, he temporarily develops an interest in weight lifting, in the hope that he’ll no longer be pinned so easily. Once the wrestling unit is over, this interest is instantly forgotten, and I remember from school how quickly interests changed because of details like that: what was being studied, what some friend was temporarily infatuated with, something everyone saw on TV one night. However, Greg’s dad lives on an adult timeframe and, since Greg expresses an interest in weightlifting a mere month and a half before Christmas, begins planning to buy a bench press. Of course, Greg knows nothing of this so it doesn’t appear in the book, but it’s no surprise (though it is a source of delightful horror) when Greg is presented with a bench press he has no interest in for Christmas.

The drawings have a pleasing simplicity to them at first glance, but as I went through the book, it was the artwork that ultimately presented the greatest disappointment. While Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had Ellen Forney to provide illustrations carefully designed to look like the drawings of a talented teenager, Kinney has created art that is just a bit too aestheticized, too uniform, too carefully iconographic. The absolute slickness of the otherwise Dilbert-looking artwork appears to come from vector graphics or some other computer-created method, with an absolute uniformity and smoothness of line that becomes oppressive and couldn’t look more out of place in the “diary” setting. Even when Greg is either copying or has pasted in the work of a less talented friend, the result is only that the shapes become wobblier, but the lines remain perfect. A child who already draws with this kind of maniacal precision in sixth grade will grow up to be either Chris Ware or a serial killer.

It’s unfortunate that the comics outlet that currently has one of the biggest audiences treats illustration with so little regard, choosing to implement it as a mechanical tool of the narrative rather than as art. A more human look to a story passing itself off as a handwritten journal would have been appreciated. Still, small children are likely not so discerning in these matters, and the story and characters certainly have charms to them. I still maintain that anything that shares this much in common with comics and is so widely beloved should be embraced by comics retailers as a better opportunity to sell to children than yet another attempt to translate the superheroes that their parents enjoy. I’d rather see more books in the vein of Part-Time Indian than Wimpy Kid, but I’ll certainly take a book that is funny and integrates its flawed pictures well if it gets kids interested in comics and reading.


Images from Diary of a Wimpy Kid © Jeff Kinney.

Free Comic Book Day 2010 reviews

May 5, 2010

I made my main FCBD stop at Floating World Comics in my neighborhood. Jason generally gets a good mix of the sponsored comics, plus a few local extras, so Floating World is usually my FCBD home base. When I arrived at the store around 12:30, the place wasn’t packed, but there was pretty good foot traffic through the store and a few of the comics, notably Oni Press’s The Sixth Gun #1, had run out.

As usual, the free comics were set up on a table in the smaller room by the window. For the first time this year, the signing area was separated from the free offerings, with Amy Mebberson, incoming artist of The Muppet Show, set up near the front counter, where she had more room to meet people and sketch (she was offering sketches of visitors’ muppet of choice).

In addition to the selection and cool signing choices, the thing that Floating World’s FCBD setup has to recommend it is that there isn’t a limit to how may titles customers can take (though they are asked to take only one of each), so I took one of everything still available.

That was my only planned FCBD event of the day, but that afternoon I went to the Hollywood Theatre to see Greenberg and, it being across the street, decided to poke my head into the Hollywood branch Things From Another World. It was already 5:00, so all the free comics were gone except for Dark Horse’s Magnus/Dr. Solar sampler (Things and Dark Horse being sister companies, that issue was in no short supply), but the store was still quite busy, with a few tables of graphic novels and merchandise marked down 60% and three tables of local creators signing.

At the tables were Erika Moen and Steve Lieber, Jamie Rich and Joëlle Jones, and Terry and Rachel Dodson, respectively. I mingled a bit and picked up the limited hardcover edition of Usagi Yojimbo vol. 11 from the sale table, a great bargain for an older hardcover in one of my favorite series (full disclosure: I was assistant editor on the series for a year, but in all fairness, have been a fan much longer).

After heading back downtown, I sat down at my local bar, The Life of Riley, and nursed some beers while reading my FCBD booty, taking a few notes on each one. Here they are, in the order I read them:

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A look at Steve Gerber’s final writing, two years later

February 10, 2010
Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery
By Steve Gerber, Justiniano, Walden Wong and others
DC Comics – softcover, $17.99

Steve Gerber died two years ago today of pneumonia while hospitalized for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. At the time, he was writing the Dr. Fate half of the DC double-feature series Countdown to Mystery, and three and a half months after his death, the final issue was released. Gerber hadn’t finished writing when he died, so the sixteen-page finale was split into four four-page endings, each written by a different writer in tribute to Gerber. A paperback was released later that year, but despite the inclusion of the multiple endings by the four guest writers, the book retains the feeling of an unfinished work. It’s a rewarding and personal-feeling final piece by one of the most idiosyncratic writers ever to work in the superhero genre.

The story is set in Gerber’s home, Las Vegas, which allows Gerber to work in a running interplay between “Chance” and “Fate,” which sees Kent dubbed first an “accident of Fate” and later “Dr. Accident” by a foe. In keeping with Gerber’s tradition of featuring extreme outsiders—Howard the Duck or Void Indigo’s Jaghur, trapped in worlds they never made; Hard Time’s fifteen-year-old Ethan serving fifty-to-life in an adult prison; the robot-raised and perhaps autistic James-Michael in Omega the Unknown; alienated showgirl Nevada—the new Dr. Fate is Kent Nelson, a descendent of the original and a down on his luck former psychoanalyst—so down on his luck that he is homeless when the story begins, participating in a brawl video inspired by the real-life “Bumfights” series. When he loses the fight and is left in a dumpster, he discovers the Helmet of Fate and begins his education in sorcery.

Gerber’s mandate with the series was in part to redefine the role of magic in the DC universe in the wake of Infinite Crisis and its effects on DC’s line as a whole, and it’s tempting to connect his illness to his decision that magic essentially runs on suffering, though of course Gerber has focused on suffering throughout his writing career, notably depicting Howard the Duck going through intermittent bouts of depression.

This time, depression is the whole point, and Gerber wastes no time establishing the downward spiral that brought Kent to the point where we find him in the opening. Gerber’s also quick to introduce the series’ antagonist, Negal, the Lord of the Self-Despised. We learn we’re in the hands of an uncommon type of superhero writer when Negal attacks Kent by pelting him with “semi-digested mortal suffering,” which looks like a glob of slime in Negal’s hand, but forms itself into black birds with sharp wings and beaks to attack Kent.

When Gerber died, I wrote that his work was among the only mainstream comics I had read that sometimes felt genuinely angry, and I’ve since been unsurprised to read other appraisals of his work that credit him as one of the first, if not the first, superhero writers to imbue his work with not just the references to social issues that others were beginning to include but with a truly personal worldview, taking corporate characters and finding in them vehicles for self-expression. Like much of his work, Dr. Fate is really about deeply human issues, filtered through the iconography of superhero comics. When it comes to depression, Negal is that filter, and he is actually stripped away in a scene in which Kent asks Maddy, the magic shop owner who’s been helping him, if she’s actually faced Negal. “. . . No,” she says. “I’ve confronted the concept of Negal and struggled with it from time to time.” That is, she’s been depressed.

Kent does physically fight Negal and some of his creatures a few times, but it’s clear that what this really represents is a disgraced psychoanalyst and broken man wresting with his own depression. Kent really is fighting Negal, and the fight has real consequences, but he’s not the cause of Kent or anyone else’s pain. Late in the book, when Kent has succumbed to his feelings of powerlessness and Maddy is wearing the helmet, Gerber presents a more nuanced view of suffering when an underling of Negal’s, Ymp, shows her “the real world.” Here, “people suffer just because” and pain is “a daily fact, a condition of existence.” Justiniano provides a great transition from the outward appearance of the people Ymp is showing her and their self images, using the same angle in panels of the same size, but on the second example depicting all the people from the previous first as fat, clumsy, or terrified.When Maddy says that all their suffering is too much for her, Gerber goes a step further, positing that people are self-centered enough that what really bothers her is not their pain at all but her experience of it.

We’ll never know whether Kent was going to permanently renounce Negal and embrace his fate wearing the helmet of his ancestor or simply muddle through with more suffering to come. Given Gerber’s history, it seems likely that Kent’s journey would have originally been a much longer one, and given such a small space, the character is not as well drawn as Howard, Ethan, Nevada, and others before him. Still, Gerber gets in some good details, like Kent internally psychoanalyzing Negal as they fight (breaking into comics in the seventies, Gerber is of the generation of writers who include a lot of captions detailing internal matters, and is one of the better practitioners of the style); using the helmet to win at slots, but only enough to pay off a particular debt; being too drunk to speak his magic words; and more. His Kent is a capable man, with talents that are second nature to him, and emotionally damaged enough that he forgets them when evaluating his self-worth.

When Gerber’s plot leaves off, Kent has been transported to Negal’s realm in a cocoon-like state, while Maddy possesses the helmet but is made helpless by despair, and another character Kent has befriended, Inza, has been almost completely dissolved into the suffering-substance Negal threw at Kent earlier. It’s at this point that the guest writers take over. A text page in the paperback claims that each writer finished the story as they believed Gerber would have, but it seems unlikely that Gerber was planning to end the story with a tribute to himself, as each of the other writers do in their own way.

First up is Adam Beechen, who also scripted the second-to-last issue over Gerber’s plot. In his four pages, Beechen goes the furthest toward tying all the characters and plot threads (including the one featuring Inza and the comic book character she’s created, a rich subplot which I haven’t had space to go into in greater detail) together, feeling like a straight continuation of the story until the killer elf from Gerber’s Defenders run shows up. Mark Evanier comes next, and while his conclusion is essentially solid, it’s a fairly pat instance of Kent simply snapping out of it. Mark Waid also writes Kent coming to his senses, but more believably and more in keeping with Gerber’s style, as Kent acknowledges that it’s probably only temporary and he’ll naturally have to grapple with this depression again, but he doesn’t bring the subplots to conclusion. Waid integrates some of Gerber’s stylistic touches as well, most notably a text page that recounts one of Kent’s sessions with a patient mentioned at the book’s beginning. Finally, Gail Simone’s ending most overtly addresses the loss of Gerber, mentioning his specific ailment, lamenting all the stories that will go unwritten, and including a note Gerber had written to her. Possessing the satirical voice closest of the four to Gerber’s, Simone also provides an interesting twist to the ending.

Obviously, at four pages each, none of these endings has much room to breath, and not being psychic, none of these writers really knew how Gerber would have ended his story, so none can be truly satisfying. I think this Dr. Fate has appeared since this series ended, but I don’t know how other writers have dealt with the conflicted, potentially fascinating character Gerber created. Nonetheless, taken on its own, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery is an engaging read for its clever approach to magic, thoughtful take on depression, and inevitably, the insight into the mindset of a brilliant writer who didn’t know for sure the hospital bed he was working in was his deathbed, but was keenly aware that it may be.

Quiet and Loud: New English Editions From Korea and Japan

September 8, 2009
The Color of Heaven
By Kim Dong Hwa
First Second – softcover, $16.99
Black Jack vol. 5
By Osamu Tezuka
Vertical – softcover, $16.95

Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of Heaven is about as quiet as comics come; the story consists largely of two women—a mother and daughter—waiting for the return of their respective love interests from far away. The 17-year-old daughter, Ehwa, is waiting for her fiancé Duksam, who has left to earn money as a fisherman in another village, while the mother awaits her own lover, a traveling artist (always referred to as “the picture man”) she met on one of his trips through their village. The pages between Duksam’s departure in the first chapter and return toward the end are filled with melancholy panels of Ehwa looking toward the sea, rhapsodizing about the beauty of things around her like trees and butterflies, visiting the market with her libidinous friend Bongsoon, and commiserating with her mother about their shared loneliness. Very little actually happens, but the light tone and delicate artwork keep everything engrossing.


Ehwa’s fiancé Duksam leaves in the book’s opening scene

The book reminds me, actually, of a painting that hangs in my living room, which I bought in China. It depicts a young girl resting her head on a table, surrounded by plants. I am told that the text to the right (which I cannot read) explains that she has just gotten out of school for the day and is waiting in her family’s greenhouse for her parents to come home as well. Something about depicting this moment of absolute stillness so simply, and the hint of ambiguity in the girl’s expression, compelled me enough to buy the painting, and to hang it everywhere I’ve lived since. I get a very similar feeling from the style of Hwa’s work here.

The Color of Heaven is the third chapter in a trilogy following Ehwa from girlhood to young womanhood. I haven’t read the other two chapters, The Color of Earth and The Color of Water, and in the absence of seeing Ehwa grow up, discover love, and commit to Duksam, the story becomes a sort of abstract exploration on the theme of waiting. While the story may be richer with the context the previous books provide (and on the strength of this one I’ll be tracking them down), the lack of that context universalizes the story, making the many lines of dialogue that offer some variation on “Women are made to . . .” or “The life of a women is full of . . .” go down a little easier. The result is a portrait of young womanhood in turn-of-the-last-century Korea that is beautiful in its poeticism, yet heartbreaking in the constraints it depicts.

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Ultimate Spider-Man heads toward Ultimatum, away from Coherence

July 27, 2009

 

With Ultimatum #5 coming out this week, it seemed like an ideal time to do some thinking about something I noticed when reading the last Ultimate Spider-Man collection:

 

Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 21: War of the Symbiotes
By Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, and Wade Von Grawbadger
Marvel – paperback, $15.99

Ultimate Spider-Man had a pretty good run, didn’t it? Twenty (twenty!) volumes of user-friendly soap opera and superheroics (or ten if you’ve followed it in the annual hardcovers, my preference until volume ten inexplicably cost the same $40 as the very long volume nine, despite being the shortest volume to date*), with a good share of laughs and “oh shit” moments along the way, illustrated in a clear and appealing, if unexciting, style. This volume is where it starts to come crashing down, and it’s a shame, because it isn’t due to anything native to the book itself.

It’s not Stuart Immonen’s art—this is only the second Ultimate Spider-Man book I’ve read that was entirely drawn by Immonen, and it’s a very different look than Mark Bagley brought to USM’s first 111 issues, but it works for me. Immonen’s is a more frenetic, angular look, but the characters are recognizably the same, while still bearing his stamp, and he brings the same acting chops and storytelling clarity.

It’s not Brian Bendis’s story, which advances the soap opera satisfyingly, catching up with what’s become of Gwen Stacy’s clone while continuing to actually make me care about Venom and even Carnage. Bendis has managed, up through the 128th issue, which this volume ends with, to give nearly every storyline elements that make them personal for Peter Parker without making it seem as though the world revolves around him—while the emotional component is enhanced by the Venom organism’s connection to him, his presence isn’t unrealistically necessary for the threat to emerge. It makes for a compelling read, and feels like a genuine threat while moving the overall story forward in several ways.

So what’s the problem? (more…)

IDW adds a second chapter to its second draft of history

June 23, 2009
Barack Obama #1: Road to the White House
By Jeff Mariotte and Tom Morgan
IDW — saddle-stitched, $3.99

BEFORE PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA’S CAMEO ROLE IN Amazing Spider-Man and subsequent appearances as president in a host of other tasteless comics, IDW saw in the higher-than-usual interest in the 2008 election a chance to expand sales outside the direct market. IDW’s Presidential Material comics, published during the campaign, received a huge amount of press attention, and Presidential Material: Barack Obama is currently in its fifth printing. Less blatantly opportunistic than those later efforts, they were essentially straight, factual retellings of John McCain and Barack Obama’s biographies, flawed but accomplishing what they set out to do. Last week, IDW and creators Jeff Mariotte and Tom Morgan returned to the Obama genre that they founded, leaving me with similarly mixed feelings as their first outing.

When we last saw our hero, he had just won his campaign against Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Picking up where Presidential Material: Barack Obama (which I suppose could now be considered Barack Obama #0) left off, Barack Obama #1: The Road to the White House opens with the Democratic convention in August, 2008, and covers the general election campaign through Inauguration Day in January, 2009. There’s not much need to summarize these events, as most readers should be familiar with them already.

Therein lies the existential crisis of Barack Obama #1: unlike the Presidential Material comics, which told the life stories of the two major party candidates in the 2008 presidential election, all the material this time around is very, very recent history. The previous comics likely informed many readers about aspects of both men’s lives of which they were unaware. By contrast, a reader who was following the campaign a few months ago is unlikly to find anything new in a rehashing of the events we all just lived through. So, what is this comic about, then? It’s doesn’t serve an explicitly educational role, as the Presidential Material comics did, and it’s not journalism in the traditional sense of the world—there is no original reporting or unique insights, and no pretense to those things.

Barack Obama #1 is most interesting as pure storytelling, a distillation of the campaign into a few broad thematic strokes. In the midst of a campaign, it’s easy to lose track of the overarching conflict amongst the hundreds of narratives fighting for attention every day. Looking back over an abridged version of the whole thing has a completely different feel. Naturally, in order to fit everything into 22 pages, events are condensed, and it’s necessary to select which moments will be included and which left out. In the process, Mariotte and Morgan have created, a few head-scratching moments aside, a cohesive narrative that actually feels fairly true to the general thrust of the 2008 campaign.

Interestingly, in this retelling John McCain actually comes across as the more compelling character of the two candidates. Obama is portrayed as remaining steady in message and presentation throughout the turns the campaign takes, which doesn’t make for much drama, but the representative moments chosen of McCain’s campaign reveal a man blindsided by the moment in history he finds himself in. McCain comes across as confused, out of touch, almost delusional in places—a victim of history, felled by the movement that he, by accident of timing, became an obstacle to, able only in defeat to step back and acknowledge the moment, in a concession speech that was the most graceful moment of his campaign. Even to someone diametrically opposed to McCain in political philosophy, it’s easy to sympathize with his apparent helplessness as the wrong man at the wrong time.

Of course, this is what happens when you impose a narrative on several months worth of a campaign in which a dozen things happened every day. During the campaign, it was in the interest of various news organizations to play up uncertainty in the election—a foregone conclusion is bad for ratings. By contrast, reading Barack Obama #1, Obama’s victory seems inevitable in the face of McCain declaring the economy sound while a falling line chart is placed behind him, or of Sarah Palin’s various statements, with their incoherent syntax even more glaring when appearing as text. The reality is that the truth is probably somewhere in between, but the 22-page format doesn’t allow for any more subtlety than the 24-hour news networks.

The limited space Mariotte has to work with also shows in the lack of detail in certain anecdotes. Steeped as he must have been in the material, Mariotte appears to have taken pieces of information for granted here and there. For instance, he notes that “when Obama described McCain’s policies as ‘lipstick on a pig’ . . . McCain’s campaign fired back, asserting that Obama was being disrespectful toward Palin.” How? Had a reader missed this story, nothing in the comic makes this sound like anything other than a total non-sequitur (the alleged connection to Palin was that she had earlier joked that the difference between a hockey mom—her self-identification—and a pit bull was “lipstick”). Several moments like this stick out.

The most interesting part of the comic is the day of the inauguration prior to the ceremony. Though only a single page, there were several details I was unaware of, such as the fact that the incoming president takes command of the nuclear “football” hours before before being sworn in, and I’d have loved to have seen more moments like this. Amusingly, Chief Justice Roberts’s mangling of the oath of office (and his addition of “So help you God?” which many oath takers say, but which is not actually part of the oath) is presented without comment. The scene is actually quite funny without context, though it did make me realize that the entire thread of the assorted conspiracy theories about Obama’s supposed lack of legitimacy—for instance, the fact that the oath was administered wrong, so he can’t really be president, OMG, remains a popular charge—are ignored in this version of events. (In fact, the oath was later re-administered, just in case. My favorite theory about the whole thing comes from a New York Times op-ed speculating that the error was a result of Roberts’s grammar Naziism.) It’s not something serious people debate, but it is a sad, dark undercurrent to a story that Barack Obama #1 portrays as purely sunny (one that is even darker after the many conspiracy-theory-driven murders that have taken place since the inauguration), with the sole exception of the now-impeached Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s attempted sale of the president’s vacated Senate seat, which receives a panel.

On the art side, a lot is asked of Tom Morgan, who has to master a whole new set of likenesses since last time, and he generally manages, though his Palin never comes out quite right, his McCain is iffy when not in close-up, and the Obama girls look a little too old. On the other hand, if Bluewater’s Female Force series is planning a Nancy Pelosi issue, I recommend Morgan. I was also able to recognize Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, even though he is not named when he appears.

The story moves a lot faster than in PM: Barack Obama, with most scenes lasting one panel and a heavier reliance on captions. Morgan’s response is to shake up the page layouts a lot more, with the unfortunate effect that, even after looking at them for awhile, I couldn’t determine the reading order of captions on a few pages. It’s a more mixed bag than Morgan’s last stab at this material.

It will be informative to see if Barack Obama #1 can recapture the success of the Presidential Material comics now that the election is over and, even though Obama’s popularity remains high, readers may be burned out on the campaign or ready to move on. For anyone who followed the election closely, there’s little new in this comic, but I found some value in a quick recap of those months, which seemed so different when seen all at once than when experienced day-to-day. With bits like highlights of the inaugural address, the comic fulfills the same “moment in history keepsake” function that last year’s installment did—this is what President Obama’s election looked like right after it happened—and in that respect it does its job, though in some areas more clumsily than PM: Barack Obama. In any event, IDW’s not finished yet, as the presence of a next issue blurb informs us that Obama has completed his transformation into a comic book hero by announcing the imminence of Barack Obama #2.

PS: Now that Mariotte and Morgan have gotten to continue with this project, I wonder if, somewhere, Andy Helfer and Stephen Thompson are seething over Obama’s victory in the same way that Jon Lovitz reportedly said, after the 1988 election, “Now fucking Dana [Carvey] gets to play the president for the next four years.”

Resurrection: Relaunch as sequel and reboot

June 9, 2009
Resurrection vol. 2 #1
By Marc Guggenheim and Justin Greenwood
Oni Press — saddle-stitched, $3.99

I DON’T USUALLY REVIEW individual chapters of larger stories, as I prefer to stick to collections or at least full runs, but I enjoyed the recent Resurrection: Insurgent Edition paperback and Free Comic Book Day issue enough that this week’s new #1 had my interest. Writer Marc Guggenheim has come up with a great premise and presents it with a compelling point of view that instills the actions of even the unlikelier characters with believability.

The first chapter of Resurrection vol. 2 is something of a strange animal; similar to several recent film franchise reboots, it is part sequel and part remake. Oni Press has heavily emphasized the new series’ independence from the old one, and it’s true that all the information necessary to understand the premise is there. The first two pages use a very effective time-lapse sequence of presidential addresses to quickly establish the background: in 1998 aliens invaded Earth and, within a matter of days, completely conquered it. The sequence elegantly shows the progression from confusion to panic to defeat that characterized those few days.

The next page jumps ahead to 2007, setting up Resurrection’s real premise, the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the aliens after nearly ten years. This is where the relaunch gets a little weird. Pages three through eight are a word-for-word replay of the first six pages of the previous #1, reintroducing a group of characters who haven’t been seen since then. This certainly vindicates Oni’s confidence that new readers won’t be lost, but it does feel redundant to the returning reader, coming so soon after the collection of vol. 1. You couldn’t ask for a more direct method of recruiting new readers than returning to the series’ ground zero, but I found myself wondering if it couldn’t have been abridged somehow, instead of spending a fifth of the pages on something we’d seen before, staged exactly the same.

A positive effect of repeating those early pages is to flatter vol. 2’s new artist, Justin Greenwood. In every instance where he’s slightly altered a panel, his version is a little more dynamic, with greater depth and movement to it. His work throughout the issue is punchy and tells the story clearly. While David Dumeer’s art in the first series had an appropriate grit to it, it was often a bit flat and occasionally inconsistent, with characters sometimes looking different on some pages than others. Greenwood’s art is cleaner, but still largely captures the desolation of the post-invasion world, though it sometimes looks a little too spare, with small pieces of rubble spread thin against otherwise featureless landscapes.

After the repeated pages, the story diverges from Resurrection vol. 1, as characters go their separate ways. Where the first volume followed Sara, the character who went off on her own, here the story sticks with the remaining members of the group, spending the entire issue with them, and reintroducing various elements of the series’ world through their travels rather than jumping between several sets of characters in different locations, as in vol. 1. No single member of the group ends up receiving as much development as Sara did in vol. 1, but their adventures do have a sense of urgency—there are strong moments of drama that feel earned, and the ending takes the kind of left turn that leaves the reader with no idea where it might go, which is always good.

Following one cluster of survivors instead of several makes Resurrection more closely resemble The Walking Dead than before, with a similar focus on a diverse group attempting to survive in a post-disaster, monster-infested world, facing the potentially greater horror of their fellow man. That being the case, the addition of color was a wise choice, as it makes Resurrection more visually distinct from The Walking Dead, which it is not much like beyond those superficial elements. The colors also further the series’ aesthetic with a desert-dry palate dominated by orange, as though fires just beyond the horizon haven’t yet burned out.

Overall, the issue feels like a recap right after reading the collection of the series to date, and will actually probably read better for someone new to the series than returning readers. After I had such a good time with vol. 1, the new #1 didn’t add much that was new, but certainly fulfills its new-reader-friendly mandate. Since the story quickly moves in a different direction from vol. 1, there’s promise of more momentum in future issues, and this taste of what’s to come—and especially the revelations in the FCBD Resurrection #0, which introduced another subplot and actually advanced the overall story more than this issue—has definitely got me curious to see what comes next.

Does Biography Work in Comics?

October 23, 2008

 

 

Presidential Material: John McCain
By Andy Helfer and Stephen Thompson
Presidential Material: Barack Obama
By Jeff Mariotte and Tom Morgan
IDW — saddle-stitched, $3.99 each

(Disclaimer: I gave money to Sen. Obama in both the primary and general periods of the current election. Read that into the following as you will.)

POLITICAL CARTOONS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a part of American elections, perfect for distilling an idea—often an attack—into a handful of icons capable of getting a point across at a glance.

However, the comics form has rarely, if ever, been used for a more in-depth look at political candidates’ histories and positions on issues. For that matter, while autobiography is common, there are relatively few comics biographies—political or otherwise—in print. There may be good reasons for this, and IDW’s new Presidential Material comics, while stronger than I’d anticipated, reveal several of the factors that make serious biographical work so rare in comics.

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